Snow crunched under the rubber soles of boots, the sound announcing someone's arrival from around the corner. Soon enough, a young couple stepped onto the poorly lit street with their hands around each other.
The thirty-something-old man whispered a sweet nothing in the girl's ear, and she giggled, flattered. The blush in her cheeks intensified, and she lifted her eyes to his face for a moment. Then, she hid her face in his coat collar, giggling again.
A rueful grin perched in the corner of the man's mouth. He wasn't sure he had made a good choice for that evening. But then, he had already invested enough money on that date, so he decided not to abandon the race before he had scored.
He dipped his head over his companion, and his lips found her cold mouth. He didn't care about that. He did not doubt that he could warm the woman soon if he were persuasive enough.
He deepened his kiss without breaking his stride. The young woman reached up and anchored herself to the lapel of his coat so as not to fall on the pavement.
Suddenly, the man tripped over something on his path. With a groan, he lunged forward, taking the girl with him. He hardly recovered his balance and pulled the young woman upright again in the last second. At least the giggles ceased, he thought bitterly when his companion couldn't stop gasping, still in shock.
"What happened, Brian?" she asked, pressing her small hand to her luscious chest.
"I'd be dammed if I know," the man replied, a frown between his eyebrows.
Belatedly, he thought of looking behind to discover what had made him lose his footing. A lonely boot lay on the pavement, only partly covered in snow. His tripping had now brushed some of the white powder off. Brian pressed his lips in a baffled grin.
"I tripped on that thing there," he indicated, tilting his head towards the guilty object in the middle of the way.
"Who would leave a boot on the road?" the young woman wondered.
Brian looked at her as if he had seen her for the first time. He hoped that she didn't expect an answer. After all, no one had asked for his opinion before leaving that boot there.
Nevertheless, he read the expectation in the woman's eyes and shook his head slightly. He got that if he poached someone in a generation so far behind his.
"Let's move on," Brian suggested. "You must be freezing already," he guessed.
The young girl's well-being didn't concern him too much. However, Brian worried about his sanity. He felt strongly that their date had already reached the expiration date. To score with that woman didn't seem so important anymore. He was afraid that she would ask God knew what stupid questions precisely at the most inappropriate moment, and his mood would be ruined.
The girl sauntered towards him, provoking another slightly perceptible headshake from Brian. He silently swore to pay more attention when picking women in bars.
She slid her arm around his and giggled once more. That sound had started to grate on his nerves, and Brian gritted his teeth. He should have seen it coming. But then, the noise level in the pub had cushioned his hearing, and he hadn't realised how maddening it sounded.
Brian felt relieved knowing that, soon, they would reach her address, and he could finally get rid of her. Picking her up in the pub had ruined his plans for that night, but he could adapt quickly to conjunctures. He would spend a good chunk of his night in front of the telly and hope for a stroke of better luck the following night.
The woman was chirping next to him, hanging on him, giggling now and then, and leaning over him whenever she felt his attention was waning. Brian tightened his teeth, determined to survive until they reached her house while his thoughts wandered onto more pleasant trails. The man tried hard not to register any of the woman's words.
After a few steps, the young woman tightened her fingers on his arm and leaned forward again. "You know," she said seductively, "I think we will have a lot of fun tonight."
Brian cringed inside and decided to let her know that he would not go upstairs with her once they reached her residence. He opened his mouth to let the words flow, but suddenly, the woman tripped. She would have fallen hard if he hadn't caught her. A second later, a piercing scream came out of her mouth.
Fearing that his hearing would never be the same, the man shook the woman. "What the heck is going on?" he asked harshly, without noticing that the woman shook from all her joints and seemed ready to fall apart.
The girl tried to speak but couldn’t articulate a word. That awed him. Only a few moments before, she had been very vocal. Then, she pointed a trembling finger downward to her left.
Fed up, Brian followed the shaking finger, and his gaze rested on a body lying across the pavement. He swallowed hard when he noticed the scarlet on the snow that covered the man's face.
Considering all that snow, Brian judged that the body had been there for a while. It had snowed almost all day on and off. It had stopped for good only about half an hour earlier.
For a couple of moments, he forgot about the woman's sharp fingernails digging into the cloth of his coat. Brian couldn't turn his eyes from what lay in his sight, his thoughts churning around his mind.
A few moments later, the woman's whimpers drew his attention back to her. Her face was scrunched, and her eyes were already puffy. She needed to be anywhere else but there.
"All right," Brian said in a calm tone of voice. "I will call the police, and then I will show you home," he attempted to soothe her.
"But they won't let you," the girl whimpered. "They will ask you to stay here on the spot," she sniffled.
'Now she's getting rational on me,' Brian thought with exasperation.
"We'll cross that bridge when it comes," he reassured her, patting her arm. "However, we can't leave this person here like that," he continued, pointing to the body on the ground.
A moment later, he regretted his gesture. The woman began crying harder, and he rolled his eyes in dismay. Still, he took his phone from his coat pocket and dialled 999.
McNamara exited the house, throwing an anxious glance over his shoulder. He had asked Bryony not to stand up from the sofa in the sitting room, but he half expected to see her behind him, ready to see him off. With a mule-like stubbornness, the woman had insisted on coming with him to the front door, as she would always do when he left for work.
Big enough to topple over, Bryony could hardly walk a few steps those days. McNamara's heart would skip a beat whenever the woman crossed the room in her duck-like waddle. He always feared that her legs would break under the weight of her swollen belly. The thought that he had had a direct hand in her present state made him nauseous.
McNamara refrained from rolling his eyes, but his mouth set in a hard line. Barely had he pulled the front door behind him that he found himself nose to nose with Mrs Stevens. Although they had known each other for about two years, their relationship had never become warmer. They tolerated each other for Bryony's sake only.
"I see you're leaving again," the woman noticed in a reproachful voice. "I knew that Bryony would always be alone if she married you. Of course, I was right."
"I have a job, Mrs Stevens," the chief inspector groused. He was sick of that conversation. It repeated with too much frequency to care for it.
"Aye, that's what I hear all the time," the old woman waved her fingers. "At least now that she is in her last month of pregnancy, you could stay at her side," she continued.
McNamara felt guilty enough without needing her reminder, so he waved his hand disgustedly and rushed down the stairs. The old woman snorted behind him and let herself inside the detective's house. She was a permanent fixture there, after all.
Gnashing his teeth, McNamara strode to his car and almost pulled the door out of its hinges. He plopped onto the car seat and turned the ignition on with a nervous gesture.
The Chief Inspector didn't want to leave Bryony alone but couldn't ask his people to do what he wasn't willing to do himself. Besides, he had already arranged not to go into the station for the following two weeks. He couldn't take time off before that.
The DCI shook his head with determination and, hoping for the best, drove his car to the address James had given him a few moments earlier. As usual, he felt that too many cars were on the road. Besides, everyone was moving at the speed of a snail on sleeping pills. So, he swerved from one lane to another to compensate. A concert of horns punctuated his progress in traffic. That didn't bother him. It was an everyday occurrence whenever he drove through the town.
He spotted the police cars stopped next to the couple huddled under a tree when he turned on the street that James mentioned earlier. His Detective Sergeant seemed to be in a deep conversation with the man in the couple. A few yards away, the coroner examined a body on the ground.
McNamara stopped his car and got off, gathering his overcoat closer to his body. The wind blew fiercer than when he left the house and chilled him. He shivered and breathed deeply, then strode towards David Stewart, the coroner.
"What can you tell me, David?" the DCI asked quietly once he reached him.
The coroner lifted his eyes to the DCI's face and shrugged.
"I don't think the cause of death would be too difficult to determine in this case, lad," the older man replied dryly.
"That evident," McNamara noted, matching the doctor's tone.
David nodded and pointed toward the body at his feet. The top of the body's skull showed an indentation that spoke clearly about a blunt trauma to the head.
"That's a lot of strength there," the Chief Inspector observed.
"That is, indeed," the coroner approved his verdict. "And probably a lot of hatred," he thought to add.
"Why do you think that?" the detective asked, his brows climbing up his forehead.
"I've examined his pockets," David said with a shrug. "The guy's got a lot of money on him, and no one bothered to steal it. I'd say that the motive for the murder wasn't the money," the man continued, a hint of irony sliding into his tone.
"Aye, it wasn't," the DCI nodded, pressing his lips in a tight line. "All right then," he said, borrowing his hands in his pockets. The tips of his fingers had turned into icicles. "We need to find another reason, then," he continued, his gaze sliding over the body. "Have you found any ID on him? That would make things easier," McNamara lifted a shoulder, tilting his head to the right.
"We did find one, lad," the coroner reassured him. "Gilchrist has already sealed it in one of his omnipresent bags," the doctor informed him, tilting his head towards the forensic team leader.
Gilchrist was a bit farther, picking up the boot that had tripped Brian earlier. At the same time, the man was surveying his team, which seemed a bit lost. They didn't seem to find any evidence to collect. The snow on the ground made it difficult to see anything else.
"Still, when do you think you could do the post-mortem?" the DCI turned his eyes to the coroner.
Stewart raised his brows, watching the DCI over the top of his glasses.
"You've heard about Christmas, have you? Even you must know about it, lad. It's in two days from now," he added.
"Aye, I know," McNamara waved his hand. "I imagine you have plans with Agatha," he added, mentioning the man's wife. McNamara considered few people friends, but Stewart and Agatha were part of that exclusivist group. "Still, there's tomorrow. You could do the post-term tomorrow," the detective insisted.
David Stewart sighed deeply and shook his head. He knew McNamara well. When the lad got an idea, no one could make him change his mind.
"I'll do it tomorrow, then," the coroner agreed. "But you owe me one, lad," he waved his finger in front of the detective. "I don't want to have any post-mortem to do for New Year's Eve. You've got other people," he warned McNamara.
The DCI nodded without too much enthusiasm. "I know we have other people, but you're the best, David."
"That doesn't mean you have to work me to death, lad," the man shook his head. "I deserve a break now and then. I'm not as young as I used to be," he warned the policeman.
"Huh," McNamara snorted. "You'll bury us all, mate," he added with a hint of a smile on his lips. Then he turned his back to the doctor and headed towards his DS, James, with long strides, unaware that Stewart chewed his lips, not to burst into laughter.
David Stewart was one of the few who saw McNamara's intricate mind. It fascinated him, so he forgave the younger man a lot.
The night air filled with the smell of fear as a sharp scream pierced its silence. The woman woke up frightened, shivering and panting as if from a nightmare.
She turned on the light and discovered John, her lazy and chubby husband, lying beside her, with eyes wide open and horror engraved on his face. His pale knuckles clenched on the blanket wrapped over his chest.
Neither of them said or did anything as if that shout had paralyzed their minds and bodies. They only looked at each other, unable to imagine what had happened.
After several long moments of painful silence, John spoke in a low murmur, as if he had been afraid that he would awaken ghosts lurking in the dark.
"What the heck was that? Did you hear it, Doris?"
"Of course, I heard it, stupid," she spat, finally feeling safe to speak. "Why do you think I'm staring at the walls in the middle of the night? You must go out and see what's going on," she added quickly.
Her usual determination screeched in the man's ears, who looked at her in shock. He couldn't believe his ears. The daft woman actually wanted him to go out there.
Her words stirred a torrent of anger in him. Years of frustration had already painfully piled up in his chest, and the dam broke.
"You've thought about that a lot, haven't you?" he snapped at her with bitterness in his voice. "Do you think I dare to go out there, in the night, after something like that?" he shouted, waving his hand in the air. "You must be daft, woman."
She didn't say anything for a while, but the look on her face did the talking for her. After forty years of marriage, her opinions weren't a secret anymore. Not that her husband cared to know. He was aware of the shift in her feelings for him. The woman didn't harbour any warmth or delight for him in her bones.
"Oh, Lord, you're so pathetic! You're such a wimp!" she exclaimed bitingly, thinking she might make him move. She knew what buttons to push so he would do her bidding.
"This time around, you can say whatever you want, my dear… It won't work," John dragged his words. "I don't give a fig about any of that. I won't go out just to please you… you… harpy!" he stuttered. "It sounded like it had come directly from hell, and hell and I have nothing in common save for you," he repeated one of his favourite quips.
"I know, don't remind me," she snapped back, annoyed.
By now, she would know his lines by heart. They had been living together for far too long, and there wasn't anything left unsaid between them.
"But maybe someone needs help. And look at us: we're just lying here. We're wasting our time talking nonsense," the woman whined.
"Well, if you're so brave, my dove, then, maybe, you should go out there," he challenged her, more than a bit of sarcasm colouring his voice. "But I don't advise you to do that. You're crazy, old bat! I tell you."
"I don't think so," she replied grumpily. "I hear hurried steps outside, John... I think Mr Thompson's woken up… I'm sure I hear others as well… Well, what are you saying now?" she eagerly provoked him, sure that his pride would suffer if he didn't go out then.
Men were like that. They would take a dare at the snap of a finger, always willing to show that they were better, stronger, and braver than any other man in the room.
"All right, back off!" the man snapped, throwing the cover away. "If he's out there, I'll go, too. Now, shut up, back off, and let me get dressed," John bellowed, cornered by his nagging wife.
He got out of bed, still springy for his age, and went to the bathroom for his bathrobe. His abrupt gestures betrayed his irritation. He tied his bathrobe and headed downstairs, all the way down, muttering a few choice words under his breath about his nosy wife.
Doris had remained in bed, content to stay there and wait for news from him. Of course, she didn't have enough courage to go and look out the window, like she usually did. Yet, she would push him out in the middle of the night just on a whim.
John opened the front door to bright lights. All the windows on the little street were lit, and that uncharacteristic illumination unsettled him. Not even at Christmas did their street display so many lights. They were Scots, and they minded their pockets after all.
John noticed three men heading with long strides towards his front lawn, talking to one another and pointing to one spot on his property. He glanced there, and his blood ran cold when his eyes fell on what they were staring at.
The moon had come out of the clouds, and a body lay sprawled in the moon's light. John needed only an instant to notice the blonde hair and the white dress, torn and stained with blood and the green of the grass. The body's right hand lay in full sight, and the crooked fingers gave the illusion that they intended to cling on to something in the air.
Then, the smell hit him — somewhat sweet and sour at the same time. John knew that the scent would linger there for days or maybe more. The lawn didn't belong to him anymore.
Overwhelmed, John suddenly felt dizzy. His body seemed to have left the material space. The relief was short-lived, though. A ruthless punch in his stomach, nausea hit him, knocking the air out of his lungs.
John bent in an awkward position and remained hunched, unable to move. His muscles screamed for oxygen as the man tried to pull air into his lungs. Yet he couldn't, and his head span faster and faster.
He saw everything as if through a dense fog. Mr Thompson had stepped on his lawn and now leaned over the body on the grass. He said something, motioning to Mr Reid, the man who lived in the third house across the street, and that one replied something back. John thought it was strange that he couldn't make any sense of the men's words.
Then, John caught a glimpse of a shadow in the dark by the corner of the house, and the man felt threatened. However, he still had enough wits to understand it was just foolish thinking. Nothing wrong could happen to him with so many people around.
John had never been a courageous man, more evident now, in his old age when he lacked the advantage of youth's stupidity.
Crushed, the man fell on the veranda like a log. Everything went black and downright silent around him. Only that iron fist of pain, squeezing his chest tightly, remained present for another second. Then, the peace he had longed for surrounded him. It was a safe and easy way out, even though John had never thought he would feel that way when his time would come.
From upstairs in her bed, Doris, his wife, heard Mr Reid call to the others.
"Oh, I think Mr Dobbs fainted. We should call a doctor or something, I suppose."
Doris's fingers and legs started shaking while dark thoughts piled up in her mind. She wanted to get out of bed, but her legs shook severely and didn't help her much. The woman finally threw her legs over the edge of the bed, but she couldn't find her slippers, although they were just there, right where she would always leave them, under the bed. She couldn't pull herself together.
The woman knew John. He might have been a little lazy and sometimes too stubborn for his own good, but he wasn't the coward she had accused him of being. He had never fainted before, regardless of how bad the situation had been.
Guilt weighed on Doris. She knew that her husband wouldn't have gone outside if it had not been for her. John wasn't a curious person, and no one would have cared less about what happened in the street or in their neighbours' houses.
On her way down the stairs, Doris tried to keep her balance, leaning against the wall. She was shaking all the worse the closer she got to the hallway. Then, Doris controlled her wild panic, and the truth dawned on her — things would never be the same for her again.
That thought made her move faster down the stairs. When she reached the hallway, the front door started opening. Stunned, the woman watched the slow movement of the door, holding her breath.
A few seconds later, heavy steps sounded on the wooden floor. The woman's gaze fell on two men, but Doris didn't recognize them at first. Still, they carried John in their arms.
The woman stared at John intently, willing him to move or say something, and then she glanced at the men again. Now, she recognized her neighbours, Mr Thompson and Reid.
Thompson said, "Don't be afraid, Mrs Dobbs. I think Mr Dobbs has just fainted, that's all. He'll be back to his usual self in no time, you'll see. I do hope he doesn't have a weak heart, though," he continued, shaking his head. "That scene out there isn't for the faint of heart. Where should we put him, Mrs Dobbs? The doctor is on his way already. He'll be here in a minute. Mrs Dobbs?"
The younger man kept talking and talking, his lips moving, forming words, yet Doris couldn't perceive a sound. The woman needed a few seconds to realize that the two men were staring at her. She shook her head to clear her mind.
Understanding that the woman was in shock, Thompson repeated slowly, "Mrs Dobbs, are you feeling well? Where should we put poor Mr Dobbs?"
Doris struggled with herself. She finally pulled herself together just enough to reply softly, "On the sofa, I think." After a few seconds, she repeated in a stronger voice, almost regaining her old composure, "Aye, on the sofa. I think it's the best place for him now. Thank you, Mr Thompson. You said the doctor was coming?"
"Aye, Mrs Dobbs, right now. I've asked Mr Brown to call him. We've called the police too. They're on their way."
"What happened, Mr Thompson?" Doris asked, somewhat reluctantly, which was peculiar.
Doris Dobbs was always the first on their street to find out what was going on. She made it her business to know if a neighbour had had a row with his wife or another neighbour. She had been the first to find out that the Porters' little Patsy had eloped with that good-looking young man, working for the Browns, or when the Davidsons had decided to divorce.
"It's best you didn't know, Mrs Dobbs. I don't think it would do you any good to know now. Here's the doctor," Thompson added after throwing a glance out the window. The doctor's car had just stopped in front of the house, and Thompson went out to greet him.
Doris sat down on an armchair near the sofa and studied her husband. John's face looked unnatural in the soft light of the living room. All colour had left his cheeks. His left hand still clenched his bathrobe stiffly, and the other hung on one side of the sofa, lifeless.
Doris didn't hear him breathing, and she knew. The doctor needn't come anymore… At least not for John. He was gone.
The woman didn't move but merely stared at the man. Only one thought repeatedly sounded in her mind like a mantra, drowning out the sounds from the street, her heartbeat, everything. 'He's dead. Oh, God, he's dead.' Nothing bothered her anymore. Even her pain had hidden inside her mind.
The people living on the street had gathered in front of the Dobbs' house and noticed the doctor's arrival. A rumour passed around, whispering that poor Mr Dobbs had had a heart attack and, probably, had already passed away before the doctor got there. People couldn't understand why his wife hadn't come out yet, and why no one had heard a peep from her.
Sirens announced the police cars, and the people fell silent, watching the cars drive up Nightingale Street. Unconsciously, they stepped farther away from the Dobbs' yard. They wanted to distance themselves and show that they were not involved in the mess on that lawn.
The police cars pulled up to the Dobbs residence, and men came out of them, some wearing police uniforms. Others wore dark coveralls, somewhat resembling the uniformed officers' clothing, and carried black cases.
A tall man in his late thirties or early forties glimpsed at the crowd in the street and then shouted to a younger policeman, "James, get their names and addresses, and send them home. We'll talk to them later in the morning. Right now, I want more room here and no on-lookers in front of the house. Too many have already trampled through this yard, probably destroying all the evidence."
"Aye, sir," said the young man, immediately heading towards the people, taking a little black book out of his pocket. The man asked for their names and addresses, and he inquired whether they had seen anything before the murder happened.
His last question remained unanswered because no one had seen anything. Everyone said the same thing: an inhuman scream woke them up. They had noticed that body on the lawn and nothing else when they came out of their houses. Neither of them had got closer to the young woman, at Mr Thompson's request not to touch anything until the police arrived.
The people even told James of the rumours about poor Mr Dobbs, who had fainted on his own porch, and then they started back home as they had nothing left to say or spread stories about. However, they seemed somewhat reluctant to abandon the ghastly sight without getting any answers.
James returned to his colleagues to report to his boss everything he had learnt. The DCI listened to him carefully and nodded. "All right, James. Good job. Now go and see what's with that man, Mr Dobbs. I think I just saw two men go into his house. I want to talk to the three of them, too."
James nodded and walked to the Dobbs' front door, which he found ajar, so he didn't bother to knock. He just pushed it open and went inside. Whispers came from somewhere on the right, so the young man followed the voices.
Getting to the living room, his eyes fell on a man, probably the doctor, taking the pulse of a woman of uncertain age. The extreme pallor in her cheeks and the apparent toll the evening had taken on her made it difficult to tell precisely how old she was.
James's eyes scanned the room, analysing the five people. Afterwards, he knocked on the door and interrupted them. "Good evening, everyone. I'm very sorry to disturb you at such a time. I'm DS James, and I need to speak to Mr Dobbs."
His words seemed to be the signal she had been waiting for because the woman burst into tears at that precise moment. The men froze in place, surprised for one moment.
Then, the man James thought the doctor studied the old woman. "Finally, she's crying. That's good. She was bound to do it sooner or later. It's always better if the grieving starts soon," he commented with a satisfied yet sympathetic nod. Then, the man turned to James. "I'm sorry, Detective Sergeant, but I'm afraid Mr Dobbs died earlier tonight because of a massive heart attack. There was nothing I could do for him, unfortunately. Probably the shock was too much for him."
"I see," James nodded, even though he wondered why the shock had been so devastating for the old man. Yet, he continued, "All right, then. I'll leave you now to Mrs Dobbs. But sir, when you've finished here, we must talk to you. And to you, too," he said, turning to Mr Thompson. "Who are you, sir?"
"I'm Thompson. I'm Daniel Thompson," the man answered, stepping forward to shake James's hand.
"Oh, I see. I'm told you're the one who made sure the others didn't disturb the body."
"Indeed, sir," Thompson nodded. "I was in the Navy in the past. I know something about such things. There are also the movies, you know… I'll be with you shortly. I just need to finish talking to good Doctor Connolly. Is that all right?"
"No rush, sir. We still have plenty to do outside. We'll be here for a while. Come and see us before you leave," James said, going back outside.
There, his eyes found his boss, DCI McNamara, talking to one of the investigators. James stopped a few steps behind the DCI, going through his notes until the chief had finished discussing the scene with the detective. Then, the DS approached McNamara.
"I'm sorry, sir, but Mr Dobbs passed away. He had a massive heart attack. His wife is in shock right now, and I don't think we'll get much out of her. She'll probably need some time to recover. However, Mr Thompson will come out with the doctor soon, and we can talk to them."
"Oh, damn it!" McNamara swore, furious because they were too late. "Rotten bad luck! He must have seen something if he died so suddenly. We'll see," he said in a hushed voice. Then he repeated, "We'll see." His thoughts still on the Dobbs situation and the significant piece of the puzzle they might have lost, he turned to the older man next to him and inquired, "So, doc, what do you think?"
"Well, not very much now… But, as you can see, the young woman had her throat slit – brutally too, from one side to the other. She was stabbed several times before that. You see those stab wounds there?" he showed the detective several marks with significant traces of blood.
McNamara nodded briefly, impatient to have the rest of the story.
"I can tell you she didn't go quietly," the coroner continued with a shake of his head. "Look at her hands. Scratches and broken nails. This girl fought hard to survive. I know you understand that I can't make a positive statement right now. Still, I'm almost positive the time of death is somewhere between only several minutes ago and an hour," he waved his hand.
McNamara looked at the coroner, expecting something more. Stewart sighed.
"We'll know more later. Anyway, the girl was severely beaten over several days before being killed. Notice here," he pointed to the body. "The bruises on her body are at different stages. Their colour isn't the same. These marks here are older, maybe three or four days old. They've already changed colour. As you can see, her face is beyond recognition, I'm afraid. Aye, lad, we'll have to find another way to identify her," he concluded, then looked across the lawn to the Dobbs house. He shook his head in regret again before he glanced back to the detective, "Well, I'll tell you more later. I'll have to do the post-mortem first."
"All right, David. Anyway, I think we may safely presume that she died a little over 30 minutes ago. That's when dispatch got the call, and people said they had heard the scream just minutes before the call came through," McNamara concluded.
The DCI looked around and said, "James, go see if there's an ID in her purse. They found a purse on the ground there." McNamara pointed somewhere towards the middle of the grass, several feet away from the body. "It must have been hers," he added. "I doubt there could have been more than one on this specific lawn."
James followed the path marked with numbered, yellow cards on the grass until he reached the investigator taking inventory of the personal effects found in the victim's purse. The DS asked him for the sealed evidence bag, which, at first glance, contained several cosmetic items — lip-gloss, mascara, a compact. A closer look at the investigator's notes revealed that they had found a card inside.
James felt a surge of pride looking at their first significant lead that evening. He signed on the bag, opened the seal, and carefully moved the other items inside the bag with his pen until he found the ID. After locating the name and address on the card, he resealed the bag and signed it. Then, the DS returned to McNamara and spoke to him in a low voice, so no one else heard him.
"It's an ID for a Patsy Porter, sir. She lived right here on this street. Oh," he stopped, noticing he had missed one bit of information. "She was quite young, sir, only sixteen," he continued with dismay.
"It's good we found it, James. We'll go and see her family in the morning. They'll have to come to the coroner's office and identify the body at the morgue sometime tomorrow," DCI McNamara added and sighed. He knew how unsettling those formalities were for the families involved.
Then, McNamara signalled the two men waiting by a stretcher. One of them was leaning on the stretcher by the van, a plastic bag hanging off his hand carelessly. He passed his boredom away with a game on his phone, and the DCI scowled. He understood their job demanded they become harder and not allow the violence they witnessed to affect them. Yet, he didn't like the complete desensitised lack of emotion either.
"You may take her now," McNamara said in a harsh tone of voice, and that snapped the two technicians out of their boredom instantly.
The men placed the body inside the black plastic bag and took it off the lawn. They carried it to the coroner's truck and left the area accessible for the forensic team. The forensic experts had already been searching the place minutely and collected what little usable evidence they found.
They didn't find the murder weapon, but, after all, they didn't hope to see it, either. It would have been too good to be true, to have the knife, and if possible, the killer's prints on it...
Once the police left, peace fell over the little suburb street again. However, this time, silence didn't comfort the residents. People didn't feel safe there anymore. They weren't uninformed. They read the papers and followed the news and knew such things happened in other places all the time. Yet, nothing similar had ever occurred so close to home.
Still, Doris remained there, in the middle of things. She kept looking out the window in the night, intent on finding out what had led to her husband's death.
She didn't feel any curiosity about what was going on in the street. But she thought it was her duty to find out why her husband had died. The woman felt guilty because she had pushed him out of the house. At the same time, she felt lonely, hollow, and deserted.
She hadn't been in love with her husband anymore. That was true. Too much time had passed, and life had been somewhat dull for the two of them for years now. Yet, she had cared for him.
Doris knew John was at the morgue now. She shivered at the thought that he was lying on a cold slab. The woman hadn't been aware his heart was weak to make things worse. Self-centred, she hadn't paid attention to any of his complaints about his health but just pushed them aside, as if they hadn't mattered.
The woman kept looking outside into the night and noticed someone crossing the lawn, looking for something on the ground, a small flashlight in their hand. She didn't see who it was, but she didn't care. Doris merely presumed the police were still looking for evidence on the ground. Yet, the person moving in the shadows of the cloud-covered moon saw her looking out the window.
It was almost ten o'clock in the morning when McNamara, together with James, returned to Nightingale Street to question their witnesses about the murder. First, they went to the Porters and knocked on their door.
Waiting seemed such a significant part of their lives that they didn't even bother to notice it anymore. Hurried steps on the stairs, and a woman's voice shouted, "One moment, please. I'm coming."
A few seconds later, the door opened. The woman at the door looked at them, questioning their possible reason for being there.
Mrs Porter was short and a little on the plump side. She looked old, anywhere between fifty and sixty, but the detectives knew she was much younger than that. Still, her face wore signs of exhaustion.
"Oh, yes… And who are you, please?" Mrs Porter asked when she found her voice again, surprised to see two unknown people instead of the friend she expected.
"We're with the police, ma'am. Here are our badges," the tall man said. "DCI McNamara and DS James. May we come in?"
The woman hesitated for a moment, unsure that she could offer any insight into the previous night's events. In the end, she stepped aside and waved them inside. Although she didn't have any information, she couldn't just tell them to leave and slam the door in their face. Not only because they were the police, but the anxiety had been bothering her since the night's violence occurred.
Mrs Porter never went out after hearing that scream because she was alone and afraid. When she finally found the courage to glance out the window, she saw her neighbours huddled up in front of the Dobbs' house.
She had been trying to forget the rumour about a girl lying dead in the Dobbs' yard, but it still haunted her. The woman had spent most of the night lying awake in bed, frightened by her imagination.
Mrs Porter led the detectives into a living room that had seen better days. Her dark thoughts had nearly paralysed her upon the detectives' arrival, and she couldn't find her voice to invite them to take a seat. With a shaky hand, she merely showed them the sofa.
The policemen took their time sitting down. They looked over the living room, glancing at family pictures or small curiosities, willing to delay the discussion with the woman.
McNamara was still looking for a way to tell her that, probably, her daughter was at the morgue. He had been thinking about that the entire morning but couldn't decide what to say.
The detective knew there was no perfect way to break such news and make it less painful. Still, he had always felt unprepared despite his many years with the police. Besides, Mrs Porter looked highly fragile, which made him hesitate more than usual. He tried to steal some more time and delay the awful moment with routine questions.
"Where's Mr Porter, please?" The DCI thought it would be easier for her if she had someone there to comfort her after their leaving. He had hardly asked the question when tears welled up in the woman's eyes. For a few long seconds, he feared she would start crying. When she finally answered, she spoke slowly and sheepishly as if she had confessed a terrible and humiliating sin.
"What boy, ma'am? Do you know his name?" McNamara asked and shifted closer to the edge of the sofa, impatient to have finally found a lead to follow. So far, he hadn't had any idea why his victim was targeted, and his only connection to the body they found was that little street.
"Oh, aye. He was such a good-looking boy. And he was such a smooth talker… but he was a good boy. He used to work at Mr Brown's pub at the other end of the street… He left at the same time. I mean, when Patsy left home to go, God knows where. But I don't know where they are now. I haven't heard a peep from my Patsy ever since."
"But do you know his name, ma'am?" McNamara asked her again patiently, although he felt like shaking her so that she would get to the point. He hated people's blabbering, but he knew better than to interrupt.
The woman thought for a few seconds. Then, she shook her head and said, "I think… It was Peter, but I'm not sure..."
Mrs Porter tilted her head on the side and seemed thinking hard. The detectives watched her patiently.
"In the beginning, I didn't ask Patsy because I didn't know she was going out with him. I found out when she left that dreadful message and went away, but that was the name she wrote on the note. That she was leaving with Peter from the pub on the corner… And then… I was too ashamed to go to the Browns and ask them… But … what's the matter? Has something happened to my husband or Patsy?" Her voice almost broke, and she glanced from one detective to the other as if begging them not to confirm her fears.
As dark as the shadow cast by his stubby beard, McNamara's eyes had already given her the dreadful news. McNamara cursed himself silently. He feared that neither he nor James could offer proper emotional support. Jo would have been the logical choice to send to Mrs Porter. She would have known how to comfort the woman.
The DCI searched for the right words to tell the woman that the girl found dead in the Dobbs' yard was probably her daughter because of the ID and general description. Yet, no words came to him. He was staring at her, almost without blinking, deciding what to do. The silence was dire: it scratched their skin and deafened their ears.
Finally, when she couldn’t bear the silence anymore, Mrs Porter whispered, “It is bad, isn’t it? Which one of them, please? I only hope it isn’t Patsy. That I wouldn’t bear.”
Suddenly, the painful thought that her daughter was the girl from the Dobbs’ yard last night penetrated the fog in her mind. She looked straight into McNamara’s eyes again, and then, she knew. It was Patsy.
She thought her heart had stopped beating for a second, but she was wrong. Only her mind had stopped working. Stunned, she joined her hands in her lap, and a horrified grimace appeared in the corner of her mouth.
McNamara knew she understood. He stood up, intending to put his hand on her shoulder and comfort her. Surprised by that unusual idea, the DCI admonished himself. He had always remained cold and detached from everything. He wasn’t a psychologist but a policeman, so he sat down again. Only finding answers and convicting killers counted.
To his horror, the next moment, something broke inside the woman. First, she groaned loudly, then she burst into tears. Sobs followed. The dam broke.
Hoping for help, McNamara glanced at James but gave up, noticing the young man’s expression. So, the DCI finally decided to go on with what he had to do.
“I’m sorry, Mrs Porter, but I must ask you to come down to the morgue and identify the body, just to be sure. We need someone to ID the young girl, and we only have a document that says it was Patsy,” he said apologetically.
A glimpse of hope nestled in the woman’s heart but died almost instantly. She knew it was wishful thinking to hope the police had made a mistake. She had already felt that her Patsy was gone. That thought had been hunting her for a few days already.
As if awakened from a trance, she said with difficulty, “When do you want me to come?”
“When you feel able to, but the sooner, the better… Do you want me to send a car to drive you to the coroner’s office this afternoon?” McNamara offered.
“No, thank you, that’s kind of you but… I’ll come by myself… Maybe I’ll ask my friend, Mary, Mary Brown, to accompany me. I don’t think she’d mind….” She realised she was rambling and shut up.
“All right, Mrs Porter, we’ll see you there in the afternoon. Now, I think we’d better leave you alone,” McNamara stood up again. He couldn’t wait to move on to the next item on his to-do list.
Mrs Porter nodded but didn’t reply. She stood up with difficulty like an old woman and showed the two policemen out. The woman opened the door mechanically and nodded to them as an afterthought.
After they left, she eased the door closed. She leaned against the wall for a few seconds. Then she slid down to the floor, where she remained motionless for a while, completely numb. After a few long minutes, she burst into tears again and sobbed her heart out. Her child was gone.
"Come on, James. Let's go to Mrs Dobbs and see how she is. Maybe last night's shock has eased a little, and she might have something to tell us now," McNamara said.
"Aye, sir, that's an excellent idea." James agreed, following him down the street.
They strode over to Mrs Dobbs' house and knocked. They waited, but no answer came from inside. They shot each other a questioning look, then pounded on the door again… harder this time. Still no answer.
James stepped back and looked up at the windows on the first floor. "Sir, I think something isn't right here. It's ten o'clock, and the light's still on upstairs."
McNamara initially dismissed his concern but thought better and said, "Who knows why? We'd better try the back door, as well. She might be there. James, stay here and keep knocking. Maybe she'll hear you. I'm going to see at the back," McNamara continued. "I'll call you if there's something."
McNamara headed with long strides to the back of the house, glancing thoughtfully at the window James had noticed earlier. Perhaps the woman had fallen asleep with the light on. That was one possible explanation. It was also possible she hadn't woken up yet. After all, the previous night must have exhausted her. McNamara knew he shouldn't make assumptions or think of the worst.
He arrived at the back of the house in no time. He raised his hand to knock when he noticed the door was ajar. He pushed it open and called, "Mrs Dobbs, are you at home? We're with the police."
No answer came from inside. Only the DCI's voice bounced off the walls. He didn't like it. He waited a few more moments then called to James, "James, come here."
James rushed from the front door, following the sound of McNamara’s voice to the back of the house. There, he found McNamara cautiously advancing through the kitchen. McNamara pointed his index to James, his thumb to himself, and then to the inside of the house. James nodded, and both entered the house slowly, ready to fight back if anybody would have attacked.
Their eyes swept all over the kitchen. The area was clean with no recent use — no plates anywhere in sight, not even a teacup. They continued outside the kitchen, along the corridor, moving silently to surprise any intruder.
The DCI opened the door on the left only to reveal a well-stocked pantry. McNamara shook his head and closed the door.
The policemen walked on, always catlike, until they reached the hallway. Another small corridor stretched before them, and on the left, stairs led to the upper floor. There was a door on each side of the staircase, and they chose to check those rooms separately.
James tiptoed into the room on the left and discovered a small but cosy drawing room with a beige loveseat and two big armchairs in the same neutral colour.
McNamara opened the door on the right of the stairs to discover the dining room, dominated by heavy sculptured furniture in fashion decades earlier.
They quietly walked along the corridor towards another room on the left. That was the living room, which James had already seen the night before. A trace of blood beckoned to them from behind the door, but not before the strong smell of spilt blood hit them.
McNamara glanced behind the door and waved to James to look as well. Reluctantly, James did look, and as always, nausea rose in his throat. That happened to him no matter how many bodies he had seen. He had already resigned himself to suffer through it if he wanted to do the job.
Mrs Dobbs lay face down behind the door, a pool of blood almost completely coagulated under her.
The detectives looked around. The small stand that used to be near the wall had been knocked over. Last night, a vase with flowers stood there, but now, it was shattered on the wet floor, the water flirting with the edges of the pool of blood. The flowers had fallen a little further, reminding James of the flowers thrown over coffins at funerals, making him feel worse.
“I think she heard some kind of noise, and she came to the door… I can see she tried to defend herself when she was grabbed… I think she fought, but she didn’t stand a chance,” McNamara said, analysing the body, his hands buried deep in his pockets. “Probably, because the attacker was stronger… We can’t dismiss that she was surprised,” he added, glancing at James, who nodded his assent.
“I’ll call the headquarters, boss. We need them to send in the coroner and the forensics,” James said, digging out his phone from his front pocket.
“All right, James, you do that. Until they come, let’s wait in the hallway. I don’t think you want to stay around this too much, and neither do I.”
Mrs Thompson noticed the cars crowded in front of the Dobbs’ house. After what happened the night before, she was more than curious. So, the woman went outside with a determination that she didn’t usually feel and headed directly to DS James. He was speaking to a man dressed in a brown jacket. She had already seen James the night before when he talked to them, and she felt confident approaching him.
"Do you mind, sir? What's happened now?" she asked him.
"You'd better go inside, ma'am," James replied and turned her towards her own house. "We'll stop by your house later, and we'll explain everything then."
Alice Thompson didn't want to leave, but she couldn't find an excuse or something witty to say so she could stay there and find out what was going on. She obeyed because she didn't know to refuse a direct order, even though James made it sound like a mere request. Lost in her thoughts, she returned to her house with small steps. Someone called her name.
"Alice, what's going on?" asked a woman in a summer outfit, entirely inadequate for the morning's chilly weather. The temperature wasn't as high as it used to be, and that flimsy outfit didn't offer any protection against the chill. The summer was flirting with its last days. However, autumn was already in the air and in the colour of the leaves.
The strange woman, Mary Reid, Alice's neighbour, had also heard the sirens of the police cars. As a woman who shared the imagination of two people at least, and especially after witnessing the night's events, she imagined the worst. Out of the ordinary was that she wasn't far from the truth this time.
Mary was a woman a little over thirty, but not the typical thirty-year-old. She was slightly plump, swarthy-faced, and green-eyed. Her temper was in total contradiction with the type of woman she was portraying.
Alice guessed that Mary had married one or two years before. The Reid family had moved into the area only half a year before after buying the house from Mr MacDonald's grandsons, who had been trying to push that house off the market for quite some time. Poor Mr MacDonald had died one year earlier, almost to the day.
Alice and Mary made some sort of friends, some said, but only because they stayed at home in the morning while their husbands went to town for work. They weren't very close, even though there wasn't a gap in age between them. Yet, they had completely different interests and weren't fit to be friends. Alice was the typical and obedient housewife, who had only her house and husband on her mind all day long. Mary was nothing of the kind. She was a modern and independent woman. Understandably, Mary Reid didn't seem to need or heed her husband's opinions. She would do whatever she wanted regardless of what that poor guy would say.
Consequently, the quarrels from their house were legendary and even quite entertaining sometimes. Some neighbours craved them. After all, it was a free show and made them forget about their pesky little rows.
"I don't know, Mary," Alice finally answered. "I'm afraid, you know. I think something bad happened at the Dobbs' again. Something happened to Mrs Dobbs. That young policeman over there didn't want to tell me anything… He sent me packing quite fast. He said they were going to talk to us later," Alice shared what she knew and headed to her house, failing to see the disappointed grimace on Mary's face, who was put out by the lack of news.
Suddenly, Alice turned back and asked, "What do you think, Mary, would you come for tea? Oh, sorry, I'd better invite you to coffee. I know you don't like tea, although I don't understand why," Alice said apologetically but not feeling any remorse. She had intentionally had that 'slip' of the tongue. In reality, she didn't like Mary, but she had to pass her time somehow. Mary was as good as any.
"I don't know, Alice," Mary said pensively without paying attention to the woman's reproach. She appeared to sink deeply into her thoughts, and Alice felt like slapping her.
Mary would always think of something! She would never react like an average person and accept an invitation without pondering it.
"All right, I'll come," Mary replied. "I can't work now anyway. There's too much noise across the street, so I would think of what happened there and make speculations… All right, I'll come. At least, if I spend some time with you, I'll relax a little. Then, I'll be able to work more and even better," Mary concluded, cheerfully following Alice.
Hearing about her work, which she loathed, Alice turned up her nose, but Mary failed to see. She had learnt to ignore Alice’s disapproval. Alice didn’t think Mary’s work was a dignified occupation for a married woman. In her opinion, Mary should have taken more care of her household instead of wasting her time with such absurd things. Obviously, she had expressed her views loudly, and not only once. But then, Mary only laughed at her and didn’t care for her ideas.
Alice opened the door and invited Mary into the house, leading the way into the kitchen, where Mary sat down at the kitchen table. Her face showed she would have liked to say something, and she was trying hard to keep her mouth shut but started making coffee for Mary and tea for herself.
Mary silently observed her. Alice’s efforts amused her, and her eyes shone with glee. The young woman knew Alice well enough. She was aware her neighbour wanted to say something, probably some wife-to-wife reproach, as she usually did. However, this time, she didn’t seem to have the courage to start.
Mary had had a very dull morning and needed some entertainment, so she decided to nudge Alice a little. It wasn’t like she cared about what Alice had to say anyway. Mary had never paid attention to her words, but, now and then, the young woman liked to play the game. It was probably petty of her, but she enjoyed seeing Alice all worked up, only to run out of steam at the end.
“All right, Alice, say it. If you have something to say, just say it. You shouldn’t hold back. You know I couldn’t even get mad at you,” Mary said, adding in her mind, ‘You’re a stupid cow, and you don’t have a backbone, so why the hell would I get upset with you?’
Alice thought for a few seconds, trying to choose the most appropriate words. “You know Mary, I heard your husband yelling at you yesterday evening. Again… You know, far from me to advise you how to run your marriage… far from me, of course... You know me. I think everyone should do whatever they want,” she said, thinking precisely the opposite. “But,” she continued coyly, “maybe… if you took more care of him and your household chores… A wife should always put her husband first… everything else should come second.”
“I know that’s what you think, Alice. But I don’t,” Mary replied in a determined voice. She enjoyed egging Alice. She didn’t consider herself a mean person, but she liked throwing Alice’s opinions back in her face.
“A husband may be here today, Alice. Tomorrow, he might be with another woman. Believe me, my dear, nothing will stop that… if it’s meant to be. Even if you cook the perfect dinner and your house is spotless, Alice. But, you see, if Michael leaves me, I won’t have to ask for money from him or wait for alimony every month. I won’t be afraid he might want to punish me or not give me two pennies. I won’t wonder whether he sends me the money on time so that I can pay rent or food or whatever. I’ll have my work and make my own money. It’s something I can rely on. He can stay, or he can go…”
Mary stopped for a few seconds, watching Alice through her lashes. “Anyway, I won’t spend my entire day cooking his favourite dishes. I’d die in less than a week. He knows that. And he also knows he isn’t everything in my life. He’s not sure about me now, so he might think twice before shopping around for a new woman... And, if he does — which I don’t think it’s impossible, I won’t join the line of those deserted women, left with nothing to their name.”
“I can’t believe what you’re saying. I can’t, you hear me,” Alice exclaimed heatedly. “A husband always appreciates when his wife takes care of the small things. He appreciates her if she’s there for him. When he knows he is the first and most important thing in her life, a husband appreciates and loves his wife more, and he won’t desert her. I saw that with Mr Thompson. I know what I’m saying,” she nodded knowingly.
‘You know nothing, damn it!’ Mary said to herself. She knew what the ‘wonderful’ Mr Thompson did, and most people living in their neighbourhood knew too. Yet, she couldn’t let her friend know. That would have been spiteful. And anyway, it wouldn’t do any good. Alice wouldn’t believe her. She would even accuse her of being envious.
So, instead, she said, "Maybe, Alice. Maybe you're right," she repeated for good measure. "But you see, I saw my mother. She was exactly like you — the caring and hardworking little housewife who didn't think of anything but her husband and his whims. When he took off, he left her behind, alone, with three children to bring up by herself because, of course, he didn't care about any of us. She didn't have money in her pockets, and she'd been left without a friend. All their friends were his, not hers. They turned their backs on her as soon as he moved out of the house. So, she had to start all over again. If you think about it, she had no training, nothing. It was a tough time for her… I'm sure you can't even imagine. The only thing she knew was to clean people's houses… So, Alice, I'm sorry, but I prefer being exactly the way I am. If Michael leaves me one day, I won't be left with no job, money, or friends. And, by the way, so you know, I prefer having my own friends, if you understand me, not his."
Alice couldn't say anything for a few moments, and then, she decided to keep her counsel, even though she still thought that Mary had it all wrong.
Maybe her mother wasn't good enough to keep her marriage strong. And after all, like mothers, like daughters. Considering Mary's aversion to household chores or heeding her husband's wishes…. Well, that said something about her mother, as well.
Alice was convinced that if she kept doing her best, her husband wouldn't desert her, unlike Mary's, who would do it in the blink of an eye.
Mary was far too lazy and didn't do anything for her spouse. She hardly cooked and preferred to buy everything already prepared from the grocer's. What man wouldn't like a nice homemade meal now and then? A man worked hard to provide for his wife, so he had the right to demand it.
Mr Reid's shirts weren't always ironed, and sometimes, even his trousers looked a little wrinkled. Alice had heard Mary telling him to start cleaning if he wanted a neat house and ironing his clothes if he wished to have unwrinkled clothes. Mary didn't care if he was tired when he returned home from work but would ask him to mow the lawn or do other things in the house, which was unacceptable.
Mary considered Alice a simpleton, even if she was a few years older. Alice lived in her own world, disconnected from reality. Like everyone else, Mary knew that Mr Thompson was seeing Ann, the young typist residing on the same street. He wasn't as faithful as his wife believed.
Of course, having a mistress took its toll, so he was always tired when he returned home at night. Rumours said that he might have had other women stashed in town.
However, as Alice never asked him to do anything in the house, the man was living the high life, a king in his own castle.
He had Alice for cleaning, cooking, and taking care of his clothes and other boring details of his life, but, on the side, the man also had Ann for his soul and for fun. God knew how many others to entertain him in town.
Still, Mary couldn't tell that to Alice. That would have crushed the little wife, so proud of her marriage and husband. However, Mary had a moment of uncertainty. Maybe Alice wasn't as satisfied as she pretended to be. Alice's marriage was not as vocal as hers, so no one really knew what happened behind the flowery curtains carefully drawn over all the windows of their house.
Alice drank her tea in silence, lost in thought and bitter. Daniel stopped being as loving as he had been during the first months of their life together. However, the woman consoled herself. Everything was for the best because she couldn't deal with his passion, even though she sometimes longed for something different, but she couldn't say what. Alice didn't want to think of that anymore, so, with an imperceptible shudder, she turned her eyes to Mary.
"What are you writing these days?"
Alice didn't have any genuine interest in Mary's writing. She didn't read anything else but some magazines and the newspapers Daniel brought home in the evening. Nevertheless, she needed a distraction to make her forget about her restlessness.
"Oh, that. Just a little story with ghosts," Mary cheered up and laughed merrily, happy to talk about her work. There, she felt safe because she knew what she was doing. "The ghost of a man falls in love with a living woman and pursues her everywhere. It's something romantic with some comic scenes here and there. All sorts of funny things happen."
"I wouldn't like to read it," Alice exclaimed. In her way, she was a pragmatic woman, and she had no taste for things like that.
The disdain and repulsion in Alice's eyes upset Mary. "Don't worry," she snapped. "There are many other people who like to read such things. My editor told me I could make good money with it, and that's also important, don't you think? I want to visit Egypt one day, and who knows, maybe this little novella might help me see my dream come true," said Mary, winking, just to annoy Alice because she knew Alice didn't like it.
"All right, I hope you can do it," Alice grumbled. "Do you want some more coffee, Mary?" she asked, suddenly sick of Mary. She wanted her out of her house.
"No, thank you," Mary replied, aware of Alice's feelings. "I think I should go. I have a lot to write – deadlines, you know. So, I'd better go now. See you soon. Maybe we'll see each other later," she threw over her shoulder on her way out.
Alice merely nodded and closed the door behind her neighbour. Then, she washed the cups, placing them back in the cupboard in the exact spot she had chosen for them. Alice didn't like changes. She loathed seeing a thing in a different place than the one she had decided upon since the beginning.
Unwillingly, she started thinking of Mary's weird marriage with Michael Reid and their terrible fights. Even though she lived two houses away from them, their shouting matches reached her ears. The entire street heard them. Famous around there, the Reid family represented one of the entertainment outlets of the minor road where usually nothing happened. Well, at least until last night.
Alice shook her head sadly. She was convinced the Reid marriage wouldn't last, and, in a way, that was a pity.
However, Michael would definitely have enough of all that drama one day and leave her with her stupid stories. Alice would have liked to see what Mary would say then. Indeed, she would lose some of her self-confidence and some of her identity.
'A husband offers identity to a woman,' Alice decided. She thought of Daniel with fondness. The poor man came home tired to the bones in the evening because he worked hard to provide her with a better life.
SELECTIVE HEARING ISSUE
One may say a lot of things about Rex. However, no one can claim that he has not adapted to the world as it is now.
Taking an example from many politicians, Rex developed a selective hearing problem. He can hear someone speaking to him, provided that what is being said bears a hint of some profit for him.
Otherwise, my smug little pug would gloss over my words with the indifference of a dignitary asked to throw some crumbles to the poor subjects needing help. They may have lined up for his passage through the crowd. Still, he could not be bothered to lower his eyes over them.
Rex similarly goes through life oblivious to anything he does not care about. Words fly by his little floppy ears, getting lost in the ether.
I can't hear you, he seems to say. Then, he trots indifferently towards his next destination, leaving you behind as if you needed to rate more on any significant scale.
I wonder if this would be a conversation, but if this is the case, you must make yourself important enough to be heard.
Then, would that only qualify as a monologue or a plea to get a grain of attention? Or, more importantly, might it be only a way to hide the pitiful state of affairs in your relationship with your pug?
Oh, so many questions! If I analyzed everything, all these meanings apply, but going there would be a waste of time. It would not make me feel better about myself—quite the opposite.
And besides, any parent would think the same if they lost an argument with their child.
Anyway, I possess a magic word, and I know it is enough to say it. Then, Rex will suddenly open his ears and do what I need.
I avoid that word as much as possible because gluttony is crested into the pugs' nature, and they exaggerate when it comes to what they can ingest.
But then, it is hard to refrain from saying it, especially if the wanted result is finally in your grasp.
Come, Rexy, my little pumpkin! Mommy will give you a treat as soon as...
You may complete the dots with everything you like, from getting inside to shutting your mouth so that the neighbours can have a moment of blessed peace.
Then, finally, everything gets back to normal. Mommy has a well-bred little creature; the sun rises in the sky once more, and peace comes down to earth and makes it livable.
Too bad the tranquillity does not last for long. Life is made of cycles, and the ones in Rex's life come about frequently.
The woman had been flirting with him for over fifteen minutes before he invited her to accompany him to the garden for fresh air. Glancing out the patio doors into the darkness, she smiled. That was precisely what she had been aiming for, and she consented freely to follow him outside.
Upon seeing him for the first time, she couldn't help but notice his well-built physique. Her gaze lingered on his broad shoulders and strong hands, making her mouth water.
She needed a man. It had been some time since a man’s strong hands aroused her. Probably too long if she considered the flutter in her belly.
The man's wealth was more important to her than her physical desire. She found his Armani suit impressive, and it confirmed that he was wealthy enough to meet her taste. She had always had an eye for such things, and it played a decisive role in her attraction towards him.
As she clung to his sturdy arm, they strolled leisurely along the gravel path. He murmured inconsequential things in her ear, and she didn’t bother listening to him.
The power she could feel under her fingers was as exciting as the heavy smell of the roses lining one side of the trail. She smelled romance in the air and smiled.
A few more steps and the roses were replaced by berry bushes. The fragrances transitioned and the summer night's warmth enveloped them in a damp cocoon.
As she walked, the shingle path disappeared beneath her feet and she stumbled on the cracked soil. Despite her slight embarrassment, both she and her companion chuckled. He silently offered her more support, and a giddy feeling bubbled up inside of her.
She giggled softly when he hastened his steps and commented playfully on his haste. He watched the trees, distracted, and didn’t indicate that he had heard her.
As they walked through the garden, she felt a sense of unease, causing her to put a halt to their rapid advancement. Though the situation felt romantic, she knew it was unwise to be alone with a man she had just met and knew nothing about. She couldn't ignore the little voice in her head that warned her to be cautious, so she decided to slow down and take her time.
It was her first time there, and she hadn’t been aware that the garden grounds were so extensive and secluded. Besides, while she had all intentions to flirt with the man, she didn’t intend to succumb to his charms that night.
It's never wise to give in too easily. The woman desired more than a casual fling, which implied that she needed to be a bit unattainable for some time. Men enjoy the thrill of the chase. They find pleasure in pursuing someone they desire and put in the efforts necessary to catch their prey.
The tall man gave her a quick look, his eyes expressing empathy, and he slowed down to match her pace. She was wearing stilettos, and she felt grateful for his consideration. When she put on her high heels that evening for the party, she hadn't anticipated walking on the rough terrain.
When they were about forty meters away from the house and in the shadow of the trees lining that side of the garden, the man grabbed her arm and pulled her to a deserted corner. He put enough strength behind his action, and the brutal move startled her.
As she walked along the dimly lit alley, a sudden shiver coursed through her body, sending a wave of goosebumps along the nape of her neck and along the length of her spine. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end as she felt a spine-chilling sensation take over, casting a shadow on her once carefree demeanor. Despite the unsettling feeling, she refused to be pulled along without putting up a fight..
Initially, she attempted to converse with him rationally. She hoped that perhaps his sudden change in demeanor was due to his eagerness to be alone with her. However, her articulate words went unnoticed, and she soon stopped pretending. She began to resist the man with all her might, but it seemed like an effort to impede a river's current.
Despite her pleas for him to stop, he continued to drag her along for a few more meters. She desperately tried to reason with him, but her efforts were in vain. She then decided to fight back and dug her heels into the ground, but the dry soil made it impossible for her to gain traction. As a result, she only managed to stir up a cloud of dust that settled into her pores.
As she walked through the dense trees, her legs began to tremble and weaken, threatening to give out beneath her. A growing sense of unease and fear gnawed at her, making her feel vulnerable and exposed. She couldn't shake the feeling that something was very wrong, and with every step, her self-assurance and sense of security dwindled.
Her arms quivered uncontrollably as if they were caught in an electrical current. Fear gripped her heart, and she struggled to hold back the tears that streamed down her cheeks, leaving a trail of burning sensation in their wake. She felt ashamed of her weakness, but the cold fingers of fear kept squeezing her heart in an iron fist, making it harder for her to breathe. Her breaths became ragged, and she fought to regain control of her emotions, but the fear persisted, refusing to loosen its grip on her.
The woman stopped in her tracks and stood in front of the man, exhausted by her futile efforts to disentangle herself from him. Despite her persistent tears, she gazed at the man's emotionless face in panic. He didn't even blink, which made her even more uneasy. He stared at her with lifeless eyes, crushing her aspirations. She attempted to speak once more, but her strength failed her. Her throat was unresponsive, and her mouth was as dry as the parched soil beneath her delicate shoes.
She cast a hopeful glance back at the house, her heart pounding with anticipation. However, the towering trees obstructed her view, and disappointment crept in, prematurely extinguishing her excitement. As she stood there, she felt a sudden quiver in her lips, realizing that she was completely alone, and no one could hear her.
The man's face twisted into a satisfied smirk, and she recoiled at the sight of it. She felt a sudden surge of fear as she understood that he held nothing but contempt for her. Despite her escalating anxiety, she tried to make sense of his disdainful look. The shock that followed was like a jolt of electricity, scattering her thoughts and leaving her searching for an explanation.
She always had confidence that men found her attractive and admired her. She knew that they looked at her with interest, but she didn't let it affect her. Her appeal wasn't just physical, but also due to her intelligence and charm. She had a captivating presence that drew people to her. Even though she received attention from men, she remained grounded and didn't let it affect her judgment or sense of self.
She gazed wearily at him, attempting to decode the emotions hidden behind his mask. However, her intuition had gone into hiding and was of no assistance.
His gaze lingered on her, assessing her every move. She could feel the weight of his scrutiny as he stepped closer, his large hand reaching out to grasp the delicate fabric of her silk blouse. The suddenness of his touch jolted her back to the present moment, shattering the illusion of their romantic encounter and revealing the true horror of the situation.
Fear was bubbling near the surface, and as her brain scrambled the signals, she was about to burst into hysterical laughter.
In that frozen moment, that soft blouse, caressing the curve of her breasts, became the most important thing in her world. Proud of that expensive piece of silk, one of the symbols she attached to the life she had built for herself, the woman had turned it into tangible proof that she had exceeded her and other people’s expectations but, more importantly, had escaped her birth circumstances, which confined her to the working class.
That dark and threatening hand on her precious top brought a glimmer of dread to her mind and made her see red before her eyes.
The beefy hand jerked hard, and the flimsy blouse fell apart, rendered to rags. The woman’s dismay and the pressure of her fury at the sight of her prized chemise, ruined ruthlessly, pushed a warlike cry past her quivering lips.
She abandoned any rational thought and jumped the man. Her shoes found soft spots in his shins and made him grunt. Her nails targeted the handsome and ruthless face she had admired just minutes before, leaving blood in their wake.
He fought her back. The slap of his backhand unbalanced her. She stumbled back and cried out again, not only because of the pain.
This cry echoed the terror that had swiftly crept into her bones and fried all her neuronal cells. The man was strong, and she couldn’t defend herself against that brutal show of force.
Her cry died soon, though. Another man grabbed her throat from behind, and his fingers gripped her as a vice and smothered the sound.
She questioned and berated herself. In the heat of the fight, she had failed to hear the other man’s steps. Still, she promised herself to go down swinging.
She tried to claw into his skin, but he didn’t show that he registered any kind of pain. Running on instinct only, she directed her stilettoes to his shins but couldn’t say if she succeeded.
His fingers burrowed harder into her delicate skin, leaving bruises behind marring her epidermis’s flawless whiteness. Her air pipe constricted, and the woman slid slowly into unconsciousness.
Before she blacked out, she had enough time to feel other fingers knotted in her hair. She slipped beyond terror and anxiety. Her impotence overwhelmed the solitary corner of her mind that was still functioning.
The last thought that passed her mind was that she couldn’t buy or fight her way out of that situation. She knew that she had lost the game with life. That was her night.
The slight flicker of life in her body made it interesting for the men. The third man grabbed her hair and threw her on the hard ground in the shadow of a bush pregnant with red drops. Her skirt climbed up her thighs, and the whiteness of the exposed skin of her legs lit the darkness.
The three of them were still looming over her. They stared at her fallen body for a few seconds.
One of the attackers smirked with satisfaction, his eyes going from her body to the red berries. The ugliness in his sneer proved that he knew well that the beauty of the red fruit went hand in hand with their poison, and he found it befitting the situation.
The woman was about to get what she deserved. Poison deserved poison.
Axel woke up with a jerk, and his half-lidded eyes perused the bedroom. The moon’s light reflected in the glass panels of the south wall and filled the room with shadows in the corners.
His heart pounded in his chest. For one brief but agonizing moment, he had feared that he was stuck there with those men, who were still staring at the woman’s body, which was lying prostrated in the shadow of that bush.
Now wide awake, he breathed deeply and closed his eyes in relief. He was still in his house.
Axel’s relief was short-lived, though. He had scarcely closed his eyes when he had another vision of the woman’s broken body, still resting on that hard, dry ground, which he had seen in his dream. Now, a monotonous rain whipped her mercilessly and washed the pattern in gore painted on her body, feeding the blood to the dehydrated soil.
The vision was so in-depth that Axel could see the raindrops clinging to the woman’s eyelashes. The light in her eyes had dimmed at first and then vanished. The lines on her forehead had deepened and marked her passing years on her face.
A few hours earlier, that face had been flawless. It was marred with an X high on her left cheekbone, and her features showed weariness, pain, and despair.
Axel flexed his fingers and wiped his damp palms off on his thighs. Axel’s visions weren’t always so detailed, but there were exceptions, such as the one he had had that night.
When the image finally blurred, Axel exhaled in a whoosh and breathed deeply. He wiped his forehead and noticed his fingers weren’t as steady as he knew them.
Axel shook his head and got off his bed. He tried to stand but had to lean on the night table for a few seconds before trying his wobbly legs again.
In the usual course of events, the man wouldn’t have needed help finding his bearings. Axel knew his lair as well as the back of his hand and could find his way through his rooms even if he hadn’t pulled the curtains aside to have the condo bathed in the light of the moon. Still, that night, he needed the support of the walls to reach the bathroom.
The man leaned on the lavabo and stared at his reflection in the mirror, but staring didn’t help. He turned on the tap and filled his fists with cold water, which he liberally splashed over his face.
When the trepidation had slowly left his body, Axel drank a mouthful. His mouth had been dry, his tongue almost stuck to the roof of his mouth.
That wasn’t enough. Axel brushed his teeth, before leaving the bathroom. He started towards his terrace but hesitated. He was restive and needed something more than just listening to the owls in the night and the sounds of the lake.
With a shrug, he turned around and left his bedroom. He needed a glass of his best whiskey to wash away the metallic taste of death, which still lingered in his mouth. His toothpaste hadn’t succeeded in chasing it away. Besides, he also needed to make a decision.
Axel didn’t know the people in his dream but knew the house. He had seen that garden before. The man had strolled around those grounds many times. He knew exactly where to find that pregnant bush, which was now guarding the woman’s lifeless body.
Now, he had to decide what to say to the police and how. He didn’t want to reveal how he knew about the crime, but they would ask, and he needed to plot a strategy.
Klavdiya was born on the shore of a small lake in Russia forty years ago. The information on Leah’s iPad didn’t show it, but it was raining the day Klavdiya entered the world.
The woman got married in spring when the cherry trees were in blossom. She was eighteen at the time. She divorced in autumn when the harsh rains washed the soil and the fallen leaves. She was only twenty-three and had a young boy attached to her skirt.
The young woman migrated to Canada the following summer, where she had already found a job in a childhood friend’s company.
She raised her son to stand on his own two feet, and when he left home to follow his path, she started looking around, ready for the hunt. Finally, it was her time, and she wanted a man and the money that came with him.
She wouldn’t give any man the time of the day unless he met her expectations. He had to be well-dressed, well-behaved, and with a rich portfolio.
Klavdiya died on the shore of another lake and on another continent. Her life had completed a full circle. The woman had come into the world restless and with a thirst to exceed the limitations of the world she had been born to, and she died without finding her peace.
Leah sat on her haunches and looked at the battered and broken body lying at her feet in the shadow of the bush. She thought that was a suitable epitaph for that woman, after all.
She knew she was harsh in her judgment, but what the detective sensed when she touched the lifeless body made her remember a friend’s words, ‘Some people are just walking calls for trouble. Most of the time, trouble eventually answers their call.’
Leah shook her head and scolded herself. No one would ever ask for what that woman got.
She stood up and turned off the iPad in her hand. Then, she glanced at the coroner, who meticulously discarded the surgical gloves and cleaned his hands with disinfectant.
Why he would do that was beyond her comprehension. Yet, she had watched Dr. Connelly perform the same ritual every time he was called to the scene of a fatal event.
The detective had known the coroner for several years, and the doctor’s little quirks never ceased to astound her. Right from the beginning of their acquaintance, he had stirred her curiosity, but he had also pulled at her heart.
Leah’s empathic skills were highly triggered whenever she looked at that gloomy old man.
She had found out eventually that the doctor wasn’t a day over sixty, yet whenever she thought of him, she felt that she would smell an old piece of parchment. That was why she got into the habit of thinking of him as an old man.
“Any word, doc?” she asked the doctor nimbly.
Leah always asked that question. She supposed it was the force of habit. The detective was compelled to inquire even though she knew he wouldn’t answer her. Doctor Connelly was the only coroner in the squad who never hazarded giving the COD before completing the post-mortem.
Leah turned to him just in time to catch his scowl, and a small smile lifted the right corner of her mouth. Leah knew his reactions by heart now and could predict them with accuracy. She actually took joy in every one of them and even found a perverse delight in yanking his chain. His answers would always make her day.
“Detective, when I have a COD, you’ll be the first informed,” he sternly replied, his hawk-like eyes trained on her.
His displeasure was evident in the tight curve of his mouth. His tone might have been stern, but he also had a way of dragging his words, which made the interlocutor aware of the sarcasm that dripped off his words like molasses in the water.
Yet, Leah felt warmth beneath the clipped words and bestowed him with a catlike smile. Her blue-green irises intensified the effect of her smile and made her seem eerie. The doctor shuddered and brusquely turned and left the scene after barking an order to the two men waiting on the side to take the body away.
Leah glanced at Klavdiya one last time. Now, no sensation came from the body. As the last drop of warmth had left the corpse, the lingering feelings and occasional thoughts from the victim also vanished.
Leah pictured the victim’s body in her mind as a shell, and it wasn’t for her to take care of that shell. Her role was to vindicate the victim and bring balance back into the world.
One thing was sure about Leah. She had an extreme sense of responsibility and never shrunk her duties. Her innate sense of justice had pushed her on that difficult road, to her family’s dismay.
Leah came from a long line of empaths. Some had more potent abilities than others, but all could sense something and read people based on those readings.
Her family members numbered several psychologists and counsellors for four generations, and she had been expected to follow in their steps. Tradition was essential for her kin. They had hoped until the last moment and didn’t resign until she had taken her oath as a policewoman.
Leah was aware that she had been a disappointment of sorts for her folks, and yet, she knew that she would do the same thing all over again if she had to choose once more.
She had chosen to become a detective and to keep her skills hidden. The police work was chaotic enough, and she didn’t need to add more suspicion and stress to her colleagues’ lives.
People wouldn’t have reacted favourably if they had heard that she knew how and sometimes why they felt the way they did. People needed to take comfort in the knowledge that they could count on the privacy of their thoughts and feelings.
Leah might have disappointed her family in the beginning, but they had passed over their displeasure fast enough. She knew that now, they felt a measure of contentment because, at best, she hadn’t chosen another line of work.
There have been cases in their clan when some members embraced a life of deceit and cunning. They had the necessary skills and could easily pull the wool over people’s eyes. It wasn’t a challenging career for them to pursue, as all the cards were up their sleeves.
After the first three years of her career, her parents came to terms with her profession and relented in their efforts to make her change her job. They also felt that Leah was meant to bring a balance into the world, and they were satisfied to see that she had a deep respect for the responsibilities they had to uphold.
Stray sunrays broke free through the gray sky and reflected into the glass of the wide window, blinding Jose for a few seconds at a time. However, he didn’t mind. The wind didn’t seem as strong as the other day, so the twenty-four-year-old man enjoyed his job for a change.
That morning, in the mild breeze, floating above the city on his window washing platform, the man could believe himself to be the king of the world. Whenever Jose looked down, the other mortals looked like tiny ants running here and there at the street level.
The other day, the man had experienced the feeling of a leaf caught in the whirlwind of air, and he had cursed his job and his willingness to do it. It seemed different now.
Satisfied with himself and his work, Jose started whistling to the song’s rhythm, pouring into his ears through the earbuds.
He made a whopping twenty-two dollars an hour, after all. The man was the first to admit that he made much more than some of his friends. They toiled in an airless factory for almost ten hours daily for a little more than half of that.
Jose knew he had it good, even though he grumbled now and then. But then, who didn’t complain about work? It was in the man’s nature to find something to whine about in anything. The more people had, the more they lamented.
Pondering his luck motivated Jose to work harder, standing on tiptoes to reach higher and bending his knees to cover more of the glass panel. If someone had watched him from afar, they would have thought the man had lost his mind. His disjointed movements resembled a weird ballet.
Still, besides a seagull, no one bore witness to his zealous hard work. The bird clonked and cried out, put out by the display, but the man didn’t hear it over the rap blast in his ears. With a last disgusted cry, the seagull chose to look for something to eat and left the scene.
Thinking of the twenty-two dollars an hour gave Jose the strength to finish the window. The man braced his hands on his hips and breathed deeply.
Damn, if he didn’t deserve that money. The surface of those glass panels could haunt a soul, and he had to make them shine. He couldn’t afford another complaint. HR had already written him up after the debacle with one of the customers last month.
The man breathed in and out several times and then glanced at his watch. The digital display told him that the time for lunch had come, so Jose sat down on the platform, crossing his legs, and took a sub out of his backpack.
He unwrapped the sandwich and sniffed it. Yep, he had hit the right combination when he put it together in the morning, and that wasn’t too bad for a mamma’s boy, as that snotty Isabel girl had called him.
Jose had broken up with Isabel more than a year before. Still, that didn’t mean that the man had forgotten all those hurtful things the woman had hurled at him. Some things stick with a person long after their expiration date. Whenever something unpleasant happened, Isabel’s words also popped into his head.
However, the young man had already met the woman of his dreams, so Isabel belonged to the past. He had even decided to ask that woman to marry him.
Alicia didn’t mock him, and she didn’t try to belittle him. Jose had only waited for his paycheck to invite her somewhere special and to ask her to be his wife. And the day had come. It was payday.
Jose wiped his fingers off his sweatpants and took out his phone. The man checked his bank account, and when his eyes fell on the deposit made that morning, he smiled. Oh, yes, the day had come.
He couldn’t wait to see Alicia’s surprise at his choice of venue. Jose had already made reservations to one of the fanciest restaurants in Toronto, and a well-thought-out ring waited for him at home. He needed only to buy some flowers, and the evening would kick off the rest of his life.
To ensure there would be no glitch, the man texted his girlfriend, ‘Don’t forget, at six at our spot.’
Jose didn’t have to wait too long for her reply. The sight of all the oxoxoxox displayed on the screen made him chuckle. Girls turned out to be so silly sometimes!
Jose gulped some water and put the sandwich wrap back in the backpack. With a satisfied sigh, the man maneuvered the platform to the next set of windows and started wiping them.
It would have been fun if he could see through the windows inside. However, the tainted glass didn’t allow him to glimpse what was happening on those floors. The man shrugged. At least he could imagine what would happen that night when he would ask the question. Jose had a good imagination, and he knew Alicia would be so happy that she would cry. While the man pictured her crying and kissing him, a wide grin perched on his lips.
When the sharp pain struck his heart, Jose cried out, but no one could hear his shout over the noise of the traffic below. For a second, with disbelief, the young man wondered if he suffered a heart attack. However, the thought seemed way too farfetched.
Then, the man fell backward, and, with a last conscious thought, he tried to catch the safety bar to hold on, but he missed. The feeling of flying over the handrail overwhelmed the man’s brain, which still fired messages down the synapses, even though a bungled bullet had already stopped his heart.
Lifeless, the man dangled in his harness at the mercy of the mild wind. The sky turned darker, and the wind started picking up, but Jose was way beyond the material plane.
The smell of stale coffee hung in the air, tickling his nostrils, and Mark cocked his nose with disgust. Someone should have emptied the coffee pot and made a new one.
Mark looked around the office with a critical eye, and his heart sank to his boots at the sorry sight. Yep, he needed to do something about that room, and soon. Leah MacKay, the lieutenant, was supposed to be back at work in about a week, and she would chew him a new hide for letting her office grow so sickening.
The truth was that Mark proved contemptible housekeeping skills. He never saw what lay around if he didn’t feel someone’s breath behind his neck. Only then did the man’s eyes start noticing what was amiss.
Leah had left Mark in charge of her office and the detectives’ squad while she went on her honeymoon for a couple of weeks. She didn’t leave too many instructions with him. Still, it was implied that Mark shouldn’t ruin her office while she was away. Unfortunately, that was what the man had done.
‘Anyway, I still have a few days before I need to worry,’ Mark pursed his lips for a few seconds. Then, dissatisfied with the prospect of putting the office to rights, the man threw his pen on the desk and turned his eyes toward the window.
With a scowl on his face, the detective watched the patch of horizon visible through the glass and the corners of his mouth turned down. The gray sky bummed his spirits some more, although he didn’t think that would have been possible.
Mark contemplated the spot of gray for a couple of minutes and then shrugged. Blue or gray, it was the same thing for him. At least it didn’t snow or rain.
The man was sick and tired of braving the elements day in and day out. That winter had seemed longer than usual that year. Consequently, Mark had already reached the end of his rope, which was interesting. After all, the man had spent most of his life in the Province of Quebec.
Snowing out his car every morning for a week had left him despondent. Even at night, Mark dreamed of that damn shovel, and he couldn’t sleep well.
The shadows under his eyes had been getting darker and darker lately. The detective felt he had turned into a raccoon every time he watched his reflection in the mirror.
However, there was some hope. Distant hope, but spring was in the air. Or, at least, that was what the man had felt that morning on his way to work.
A few months back, his heart would have sung with joy at the briefest glimpse of the sun. Mark would have thought of finally getting out to the park or a pub to have a beer on a terrace, filling his lungs with the season’s crisp air. The beer sounded well enough, but he couldn’t gather enough enthusiasm to pass muster.
Since Jen left him, Mark had sunk into a dark depression. The man had thought that their almost three-year relationship meant something for the woman, only to discover that he had lied to himself and had a hyperactive imagination.
The woman strung Mark enough until she had found something better. Mark didn’t have a chance to compete with a seven-figure portfolio. His paycheck trotted far behind.
Sick of his introspections, Mark glanced at his watch and grimaced. It was barely eleven. Lunch wouldn’t have been a satisfactory excuse to leave the office, and the man had already taken a coffee break only thirty minutes before. Still, he felt that he couldn’t breathe, caged in the room, and needed to go out.
Mark knew that he should have read a few reports but couldn’t bring himself to open the files. Besides, Anna and Josh had proved their efficiency in the past, so Mark didn’t think they needed his supervision right then. Nothing seemed urgent to shake him from his passivity, so the man continued to wallow in his melancholy.
The detective leaned back in his chair and propped his feet on the desk, happy that Leah wasn’t there to slash him with her sharp tongue. The man closed his eyes, thinking he could nod off for an hour or so. No one entered that office without knocking first, so he had the time to put his feet back on the floor if anyone had come.
Mark dozed off, his hands folded on his stomach, happy that the noise from the detectives’ hall didn’t penetrate the walls to disturb him. Unknowingly, the man whistled through one of his nostrils every time he breathed, the sound keeping company to the low buzzing from the computer.
Vivid dreams prompted a scowl on his face. Now and then, a grimace tugged at the curve of his mouth, and his fingers twitched. The corners of his eyes and his forehead crinkled. His eyebrows knitted above his eyes.
Someone knocked on the door enthusiastically, and his mobile phone rang at the same time, jarring him. Mark woke up with a jolt, almost falling off the chair. In the process, the man bumped his elbow onto the edge of the desk. A second later, his right foot got caught in the upper corner under the table for a few moments.
Mark pulled hard and twisted his ankle. He groaned, and his feet landed with a thump on the floor. His body took a dive, and his forehead narrowly missed the top of the table. The man fumbled to keep his balance, crushing a few choice words under his tongue.
Both the knocking and ringing continued, and Mark growled. He pushed his fingers through his hair to bring some order to his dishevelled appearance and smoothed his clothes with hurried gestures.
“Come in,” he yelled over the ringing and then snatched the mobile phone off the desk to see who was calling.
The door half-opened, and wide-eyed, Anna pushed her head through the opening, indicating that she didn’t know what to expect.
Mark had taken quite a time to answer her knock. Besides, the muffled noises from the room didn’t seem encouraging to the young policewoman.
Mark waved her to come inside with a negligent gesture while checking the screen for the caller’s name. The detective mutely invited Anna to sit across from him and answered the phone.
“What’s up, Victor?” the detective barked with annoyance, only to scowl afterward. He had hoped not to reveal that the entire ruckus had put him out.
Not to disturb Mark, Anna closed the door quietly and sat in one of the chairs across from him. The woman folded her hands in her lap, patiently waiting for the detective to finish his phone discussion.
Everyone in the precinct knew Victor or knew of him. The man had made the news a few years back after surviving three savage attempts on his life, and many of the police officers had declared him a hero.
Anna had had the opportunity to spend some time in the man’s company. Victor had impressed her with his indifferent attitude towards what people thought. A non-conformist, the man’s intelligence proved above average, and his moral compass attracted the woman more. The man lived with a strict set of rules.
“Yes, Leah will be back next week,” Mark nodded, replying to a question coming from Victor, and then continued to listen attentively.
When the detective’s eyes rounded, and his lips parted in surprise, Anna understood that the subject was something serious.
“Yes, of course, I will look into it. We can’t wait until Leah’s back,” Mark shook his head, pressing his lips with determination.
A deep furrow formed between the man’s eyebrows, and he tilted his head to the right, listening intently.
“All right then,” Mark said, glancing at his watch. “I suppose I can get there in half an hour if you want,” he continued afterward.
Mark listened some more and nodded. “Good, see you then. Yes, I will bring Anna and Josh with me,” he assured his friend. “See you, buddy,” Mark said and disconnected the call.
“Are we going somewhere?” Anna asked, her eyebrows hiking up her forehead.
Excitement ran through her veins. She knew that a case with Victor would be anything else but boring.
“Yes, I think we have just got a case,” Mark explained pensively. “Tell Josh that he must come too. Anyway, Victor made some allusions about lunch for all of us, and you know that Liliana can cook,” the detective winked at his colleague.
The woman burst into laughter and shook her head. “That, I do know,” she agreed with him and stood up, heading to the door.
“Oh, what did you need?” Mark stopped her, remembering the woman had come to talk to him.
“Oh, nothing special,” Anna fluttered her fingers with negligence. “Josh and I were thinking of going out for lunch and wanted to invite you too,” she shrugged.
“Ah, okay then,” Mark nodded and watched the woman leave the room.
‘And for that, I almost maimed myself,’ he growled after Anna left and thumped his fist onto the top of the table.
Still, the thought of a hearty lunch made Mark forget about his near-miss.
“Hey, guys,” Victor greeted the detectives with effusion and invited them into his house with a large wave of his hand. “It’s been a while,” he thought after closing the door behind them.
“Eh, not so long,” Anna replied, fluttering her fingers dismissively. “We’ve seen each other at Leah’s wedding only about three weeks ago,” she corrected him in a playful tone of voice, and a smile curved her lips.
“That, yes, we have,” Victor agreed with her. “I was talking about coming to my house, though,” he explained. “It’s been quite a while.”
“Last September, I think,” Josh remembered with a grin. “It was your birthday,” the man pointed out, and Victor nodded, leading them toward the living room.
“I would invite you outside, but it is chilly, and I don’t think you would enjoy it too much,” he grinned at the three detectives.
“Is Liliana at home?” Mark asked, hoping they might get something to eat from that visit as Victor had promised.
Victor had mentioned something about food, but the detective didn’t trust him too much in that department.
Liliana always put something tasty on the table for visitors. Victor wasn’t so polite, though. The man had adopted new customs when he stepped onto Canadian soil. He had forgotten what he might have learned as a child in his parents’ house.
The detectives could expect anything from him. His idea about offering them lunch might have meant some chips and beer, even though beer was a big no-no for the detectives during their workday.
“She will get back home soon,” Victor waved his hand, unconcerned, after glancing at his watch. “She had only a few errands to run,” the man explained. “These days, she hasn’t got more than a few days off, and she crams them with everything she can do,” he continued with a shrug.
No one asked Victor why he wouldn’t help his wife with her errands. The detectives had got to know Liliana by now. They had learned that the young woman didn’t like to have her independence curtailed just because she had become a wife a second time. She didn’t believe that she needed her husband’s help in everything. The woman could take care of her own problems all by herself.
“It’s too early for a stiff drink,” Victor said after his guests sat down. “However, what would you say about some coffee and a soft drink?” he asked, looking from one to the other.
“Both would be great,” Mark admitted with an inward sigh.
Food didn’t seem to be on the cards that day. Victor had forgotten entirely about the lunch proposition he had extended over the phone.
“Well, make yourself comfortable, and I will bring the drinks in a few moments,” Victor said, leaving the room.
Mark looked around the room with a critical eye. The living room hadn’t changed much since he first entered that house.
Some subtle touches reminded him of a feminine presence in the house, but Liliana hadn’t gone wild with the decorations. A board game forgotten on the edge of a small table reminded Mark of the children’s presence under the roof now, and a vase with a bunch of colourful flowers warmed the austere air of the interior.
Mark grinned when he noticed the trace left by the bullet that had crossed Victor’s arm to lodge into the wooden frame of the wall. As their host was coming back with their drinks, the detective turned to him.
“I see you still have that hole in your wooden frame,” the man tilted his head toward the wall.
Victor grinned wryly and shook his head. “Eh, I haven’t felt like repairing it, you know. A reminder, if you want, that nothing is sure one hundred percent. You never know what tomorrow might bring. Plus, it helps to make you enjoy life to its fullest in the present. Tomorrow might disappear in a big puff,” he shrugged.
“That’s correct,” Anna nodded wisely.
No one knew that better than she did. The last few months had practically changed her life completely. Her parents had moved to warmer climates, leaving her alone in the big city. The woman had the company of two cats inherited from her mother, but that didn’t fill in the void she felt every evening when she locked the world out of her door.
“Anyway,” Mark intervened, looking critically at what Victor had loaded on the tray, noticing with disappointment that the man had stacked only the cups of coffee and soda cans and sighed inwardly. Then, he continued, “You said that you wanted to talk to us about something. You mentioned the words human trafficking if I remember correctly,” the man added.
“Oh, yes, I have something that might interest you,” Victor nodded. “But let me bring the coffee pot first, and then we can discuss the problem,” he said and went back to the kitchen without waiting for an answer from the detective.
Mark sighed and leaned back. Victor hadn’t changed. Everything had to be on his timetable, and the detective knew that he wouldn’t have a chance to get his answers sooner.
The detective looked at his colleagues under his lashes to judge their mood. He had promised them lunch, and it didn’t seem they would eat anything too soon.
Oblivious to anything that happened around, Josh stared at his phone screen. The man read God knew what, and Mark frowned. His colleague hadn’t said a word until then, and he wondered what ran through the man’s head.
The detective turned his eyes toward Anna and noticed the guarded expression on her face. The woman seemed to analyze the floral motive of the carpet closely. Mark knew she had seen it, so that didn’t make sense.
Mark grimaced and turned his eyes to the French doors leading to the terrace. He remembered the hours spent on that terrace with his colleagues. He regretted that the weather prevented them from doing it that day.
Dissatisfied with everything, Mark crossed his arms over his chest and resigned to waiting for the events to unfold. Having lunch was impossible, so he hoped the discussion with Victor wouldn’t take long. At least they could go to lunch afterward.
Victor returned with the coffee pot and started pouring, making small talk. Mark smiled and nodded, but he didn’t really listen to the words from the man’s mouth. He knew Victor, and the detective didn’t expect the man to say anything important before everyone sat down with a cup. Until then, Mark felt free to let his mind wander.
Their host handed each of them a cup of coffee and then sat beside Mark on the sofa.
“Well,” he started after sipping from his cup. “I had better get to the subject, I think. I know you don’t have much time available. Probably, you have other cases to solve as well,” the man said, and his brows hiked up his forehead inquiringly.
“It’s not a problem,” Josh intervened. “We have the time,” he continued, and Mark tightened his teeth in frustration.
His colleague hadn’t contributed anything by then, and now, he chirped like a magpie. Mark’s dreams of a hearty lunch flew off the window with Josh’s words.
“Well,” Victor nodded, “let me tell you what’s what. I would have preferred to have Leah and Axel here for this, but you will do,” he shrugged.
Mark narrowed his eyes to slits, upset with the man’s words. Leah might have turned out to be an exceptional detective, but that didn’t mean she was the only one. Maybe her input had helped them all the time in the past. However, even Josh had come up with valuable ideas often enough.
“Don’t take it wrong,” Victor turned his eyes toward him. “I don’t mean that you are not a good detective or that I couldn’t work with Anna and Josh,” the man shook his head in denial. “However, Leah and Axel have a few skills that few people possess, and those skills would have helped me in laying the story out, you know.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Mark waved his hand, determined not to split hairs anymore. “Tell us what it’s about, and if necessary, we will contact Leah and Axel. They should return home in a few days so that it wouldn’t be a problem,” he shrugged.
“I don’t think…” Victor started, but then the bell rang.
“Are you waiting for someone?” asked Mark, surprised that Victor invited another person to their meeting.
“Give me a moment,” Victor said, standing up and leaving the living room.
“Hmm, interesting, don’t you think?” Josh murmured toward Anna, but Mark heard him and scowled at him.
Victor gave up playing dead as the torchlight swept over him. He didn’t know the two people, but either way, there were only two viable options - they were either coming to rescue him or finish him off. There was no third possibility.
The man lifted his head and gritted his teeth as he turned to face the light. The flashlight blinded him; this time, he couldn’t do otherwise but groan.
“He’s over there,” the other man said and rushed to kneel beside Victor. “Hey, buddy, you still with us?” he asked, and Victor felt the smile in his voice.
Victor growled and shook his head briefly. He didn’t know if he still had a voice or not. His eyes searched the man’s face, and, satisfied that he had never seen him before, he let his forehead fall back onto his folded arms and closed his eyes.
“Is he still alive?” the woman’s voice reached his ears.
“Yes, he is. What should we do now?” the man asked, arousing Victor’s curiosity.
‘Why is he asking her opinion?” he thought, and a few moments later, the man’s laughter filled the air.
“Because she’s the boss now,” the man retorted humorously.
His words shocked Victor, and he simply froze, his eyes fixing on Axel. He couldn’t even blink.
“Look what you’ve done now, Axel,” the woman admonished her companion. “You frightened him.”
“He’ll survive,” Axel replied pragmatically, and Victor sensed that the man shrugged nonchalantly.
“Who are you people?” Victor grunted, unable to keep his mouth shut for another moment. He felt as if he had landed in a bizarre dimension. This time, he was sure he didn’t say anything out loud.
The woman’s cool hand brushed his hair away from his forehead, soothing the rising fever.
“I am Leah MacKay. I’m a detective, and this is my boyfriend, Axel Arnett,” she explained softly. “I’ll call an ambulance for you,” she continued.
The woman tried to rise, but Victor’s fingers clamped down on her wrist with surprising strength.
“Don’t call the police,” Victor muttered and then bit his lip. The sudden movement had released thousands of painful arrows along his spine and pelvis.
Arnett burst into vigorous laughter, which grated on Victor’s nerves. He would have knocked the man to the ground with a well-placed fist if he had had enough strength.
“I’m sorry, mate, the police are already here,” Axel explained cheerfully, which made Victor grit his teeth again.
Leah gently removed his fingers from her wrist and pulled her cell phone from her pocket. She dialled 911 and explained to the operator who she was and that she needed an ambulance and her team at the Sarabande Garden.
Defeated, Victor sighed and put his head on his arms again. Once, he had seen a commercial on TV about a small gopher who kept trying to climb out of a hole in the ground only to get hit in the head with a hammer every time. Now, Victor was that gopher. He had lost control of his life. ‘Eh, it’s not like it’s the first time,’ he mused.
Axel Arnett leaned over and whispered, “Everything will be fine, don’t worry. She’s the best.”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” Victor muttered, making Axel laugh out loud.
Axel liked the man and was satisfied they had reached him in time. He hoped Victor would survive but realized that Victor was a strong man and counted on his constitution. He didn’t look like a man who could be taken down quickly.
In less than fifteen minutes, the place was swarming with people. The detective, Leah MacKay, seemed to have quite a bit of clout.
Two paramedics kept examining him until Victor felt the urge to smack them hard over the head repeatedly. Only he was already knocked to the ground, so it didn’t take that much effort for the two to finish him off.
Despite the consultation, the paramedics had not removed the knife, which remained stuck in his back, and for that, Victor thanked God.
The man feared that if they pulled the knife out of his back, he would lose consciousness, and he felt it was imperative to keep his mental faculties working. Moreover, he doubted removing the knife would be a good idea.
After the paramedics finished examining him, they prepared to take him away. They laid him face down on the stretcher they had brought and secured him as best they could.
Leah, who until then had been doing her job barking orders left and right, came with long strides towards them.
“So, what do you think? Is he going to be okay?”
One of the paramedics nodded affirmatively, but the other, a woman, just shrugged. “We don’t know yet,” the woman specified. “They’ll have to examine him in the emergency room, but he’ll survive until he gets there,” she explained in a dry tone.
Leah nodded her understanding and then addressed him, “Before you go, give me your name and show me where you were attacked again.”
Victor fixed his dark blue eyes on her face. He pondered her questions briefly but knew he would eventually have to give her honest answers.
“Victor Dobrota,” he introduced himself in a slightly hoarse voice.
Leah spelled out the name as she wrote it down, and he approved of her spelling choice.
“And exactly where were you when you were stabbed?” she repeated the previous question.
Victor pointed to the edge of the grove.
“Right there, I think. Maybe a few steps in the shadows because I didn’t want to be seen. Not that it did me any good,” Victor muttered, visibly upset, primarily with himself.
Leah smiled at him. She understood the man’s anger and felt sorry for what had happened to him.
“All right, Victor. Now, go to the hospital, and I’ll see you there after a while. Is that all right?”
Victor nodded, shaking his head to rest it on his right arm afterwards, closing his eyes. He was no wilting violet, but the night’s events had nonetheless drained him of his strength.
Victor gritted his teeth as they moved him from the gurney to the CT-scan bed. He gritted his teeth when they moved him back to the operating room.
After they anesthetized him, the pain stopped. He welcomed the darkness, though the man had been working hard to remain conscious half an hour earlier.
Two hours later, Victor slowly opened his eyes and found himself in a spare room in the intensive care unit.
‘Yeah, about time I visited one of these places,’ he thought sarcastically. He had never been in the hospital before, although his lifelong adult troubles would have warranted it a few times.
Victor had had enough of scrapes and wounds throughout his childhood and later as a teenager. He was the apple of his mother’s eye, but that didn’t mean Maria Dobrota was the type to coddle or spoil him. Moreover, his mother didn’t like doctors very much.
Later in life, he learned not to let anything get him down. The man often ignored his bruises or bumps, and even a few concussions didn’t make him stop his activities.
Victor looked around with lively curiosity and noticed that the second bed in the room was empty. He tried to raise his head to better look at the room, but a wave of nausea rose in his throat, so he gave up and let his head fall with a thud on the pillow, which made his eyes roll back in his head.
His mouth felt dry, and he ran his tongue over his teeth but couldn’t shake the dry feeling. His throat ached, and he instinctively felt the urge to cough. However, he didn’t have the strength to do it.
When the door opened, Victor lifted his head to see who had entered the room and groaned. First, he tried to move his right arm, but something held him back, and a slight panic crept along his spine.
“Let me help you,” came a melodious voice, followed by hurried footsteps muffled by the rubber soles of the nurse’s shoes.
He almost expected to see an angelic face to match the voice. When the woman appeared in his line of sight, Victor almost flinched. The nurse was ugly as sin, yet her eyes warmed him to the depths of his soul.
Her cool hand first touched his forehead, and then the woman smiled at him.
“I’ll raise the bed just a notch, and you won’t have to lift your head, all right?” she told him, and Victor blinked.
He didn’t think he could move his head without the wave of nausea returning.
“You may feel some nausea and dry mouth for a while,” the young woman explained. “It’s a side effect of the anesthesia, but it will pass soon,” she assured Victor.
“Thank you,” he felt compelled to say, and his voice sounded hoarse in his ears.
The nurse patted him lightly on the chest and smiled again. “But rest a little longer for a while. The police will be here soon to talk to you. If you need anything,” the nurse gestured, “like water or ice, just let me know. See this button here?” She pointed to a button he could reach with his left hand. “If you press it, someone will immediately come to you.”
“Thank you,” Victor said again, and his eyes followed the woman until she left the room.
After the door closed behind her, Victor relaxed slightly. Thinking of all that would come later, he decided to sleep a little longer. Tired, he fell asleep in a few seconds, not having time to ponder anything else.
CHAPTER 3 – A DISPATCHER WITH A SPECIAL SENSE OF HUMOR
Bored out of her mind, Norma Jean was merely filing her fingernails when the phone rang. She threw her fiery hair over her left shoulder and scowled.
Then Norma Jean admired her long fingernails and thought to let the phone ring. She wasn’t in the mood to take any calls that night and didn’t care if half the county was out for a kill.
“Aren’t you going to take that?” Deputy Henderson asked from the door, dusting off his hat.
Norma Jean glanced at the tall figure looming in the door, and her scowl deepened. She hadn’t heard the deputy coming back from his round, although he wasn’t such a small man. He was well over 6.2, in her opinion. Now, she had to answer the damn phone.
She waved her hand in the deputy’s direction to shut him up and picked up the receiver with a grim expression in her green eyes. The deputy pitied the person who thought to call at that hour.
“The Sherriff’s Office,” she mumbled and then listened to the frantic voice at the other end of the line. Muffled bits and pieces of words reached the deputy’s ear, but he couldn’t understand their meaning.
“And who did you say you were?” Norma Jean asked rudely, and the deputy shook his head in desperation.
He knew why Norma Jean worked there. It wasn’t because of her secretarial skills or polite phone attitude but because she was the sheriff’s sister-in-law. That was how she had landed the job.
Of course, no one else would have hired her. Before working for the Sheriff’s Office, she had made the tour of all businesses in the county, or so people said.
It was common knowledge she couldn’t hold a job for more than three days anywhere else. She had been fired more often than some people changed their shirts.
There, in the sheriff’s office, her brother-in-law closed his eyes to her unorthodox manners, and no one wondered if he had lost or misplaced all the complaints filed against Norma Jean. And there had been quite a few. Chris Henderson had even witnessed a few of the accusations.
A while back, the deputy had wondered why the sheriff didn’t worry about not being elected again. His behaviour towards the constituents and his support for Norma Jean were telling.
Anyway, Chris found out why less than a year ago, when the rape kit related to Emily Logan’s rape was misplaced. Of course, after being lost for a while, the collection became useless, and they never resolved the case. Then Henderson put two and two together: the private discussions the sheriff had with Lorna Carter and Sheriff Willow’s confidence in the future election. The young man had been agonizing over Logan’s case ever since. He’d wanted to do something but didn’t know what he could do.
“Aha…aha… I’d say to ease down on the booze and go to bed,” Norma Jean’s voice boomed, followed by the receiver slamming in the hook.
Deputy Henderson winced and watched her with wide eyes. He’d seen and heard her doing many things, but until then, she’d never treated someone with so much contempt.
“Who was on the phone?” Henderson asked and put the hat on the top of his desk.
Norma Jean only waved her hand as if sick and tired of the subject. In a steely voice, though, Henderson insisted, “Who was on the darn phone?”
Norma Jean glanced at Chris as though she saw him for the first time. Her eyes swept over his thick, black, and unruly hair, dark blue eyes, the expanse of his chest, and muscular thighs, and her heart did a little tumble. Henderson was a tall and strong man, but he used to be an easy-going fellow. His present voice and demeanor were out of the ordinary, and something stirred in Norma Jean’s heart or maybe somewhere else.
“Just a drunk,” she replied briefly and shrugged.
“Exactly who?” Henderson asked again, and his sternness made Norma Jean shiver.
He’s like a damn terrier with a bone, she thought, now getting angry.
“Gus Carter,” she said through clenched teeth.
Her temper was rising. No one questioned her actions in that office. They all knew who she was, and Norma Jean knew to use the law of the land to her advantage. Henderson might have been a hunk – a sexy hunk, but that didn’t give him leeway to treat her that way. She would have to teach him a lesson or two.
“Gus Carter is not a drunk,” Henderson observed in the same steely voice, and his eyes turned into slits.
“Everybody is a drunk,” the petite curvy woman responded nonchalantly. “Even you can get drunk,” Norma Jean remarked, and the light reflected in the green of her eyes when she smirked at him.
“Maybe, but that’s neither here nor there. The man doesn’t get drunk. Ever,” Chris Henderson stressed and cut the air with his palm. “Get it through your thick skull, Norma Jean. He never gets drunk. What did he say, Norma Jean?” he prodded again.
Henderson had a bad feeling. The hair on his forearms was standing up, and something close to anxiety was playing havoc with his heart.
Norma Jean fluttered her hand again, and then, she admitted, “Something about Lorna being on the floor and blood everywhere. No doubt that the man is in his bottles,” she remarked. “After a good night of sleep, he’ll recover,” she observed in her usual sluggish manner.
“Are you out of your mind?” Henderson shouted. “Someone called to announce a murder, and you sent them to bed?” His voice rose increasingly with every word, and Norma Jean flinched at every higher sound.
“Don’t get your bowels in a knot, Deputy,” she tried to hold her own. “The man was drunk, no question about it. I’m telling you. Nobody would touch Lorna. Believe me. The man or woman who’d dare that isn’t born yet,” she said, nodding emphatically.
Chris Henderson just shook his head in disbelief. The woman had done many things in that office, but that took the prize.
It was one thing to tell Old Maggie to stuff it when she called about her neighbor’s dog and another to dismiss a murder off-hand just because she wanted to. That was beyond mere negligence and laziness.
“Call the sheriff immediately,” he shouted at her with authority. “Tell him to come to Carter’s. I’ll be there,” he added, plucking his hat off his desk. He stormed out of the sheriff’s office, grumbling.
“Good riddance,” Norma Jean mumbled and picked up her nail filer to resume the grooming of her nails. She admired her long and rounded fingernails and started filing them diligently. She had to start the following week with a flawless manicure.
Ten minutes later, to her dismay, the phone rang again. She glanced at it with a frown but continued filing her nails. She imagined it would stop after ten or so rings. Yet, it didn’t.
Annoyed, she snatched the receiver off the hook and shouted irately, “What?”
“Are you out of your mind?” the sheriff’s angry reply reached her ears. “Is that how you speak to people?” he bellowed his outrage. “I’ve just had Gus Carter on the phone. He said that he called to announce that someone had killed Lorna, and you told him to ease off the drink and go to bed. Have you lost your damn senses?” the sheriff roared at the top of his lungs.
With a grimace, Norma Jean moved the receiver away from her ear. She just knew her hearing wouldn’t be the same after that conversation. She wondered what got into Kenneth’s bonnet.
“Kenneth, listen to me…” she began, trying to soothe him, but he interrupted her immediately with a shout.
“Listen… listen…” he sputtered, unable to find his words for a moment. “Do you want me to listen to you? You’re a crazy broad, Norma Jean, do you know that? You listen here. If Lorna’s dead, your job is gone. I don’t care what your sister says. You’re history,” he shouted in an increased volume.
Norma Jean pouted but didn’t give up. “You’ll see she’s not dead,” she reassured him, and her voice reeked with confidence.
“That’s what you say,” he argued back. “But Gus says differently, and he knows what he’s talking about,” Kenneth replied with contempt. “Where’s Henderson?” he asked.
“He went to the Carters’,” she replied in a small voice. Now, she was afraid.
“At least one of you has their head well screwed,” he replied. “I’m off to the Carters’ as well. And you try to be polite on the phone from now on if somebody calls, or you’ll be out on your ear otherwise. Do you understand, Norma Jean?” Kenneth shouted at her again and then disconnected the call.
Norma Jean’s feeling of well-being faded. She glanced at her hands but couldn’t find joy in her shiny fingernails either.
She knew Kenneth well. He was a stuffy prick, and if he felt a threat to his position, he would feed her to the wolves.
CHAPTER 4 – GUS CARTER IS DAUNTINGLY SOBER
Chris Henderson drove to the Carters’ as fast as he could without the lights on. He didn’t have confirmation of an emergency and couldn’t use the lights and siren just on a hunch.
He still reeled over Norma Jean’s scornful behavior. Norma Jean had a pretty face, and that went well with her curvy and luscious body, but her sly nature had always driven Chris away. He avoided her whenever he could.
When he turned into the Carters’ drive, his headlights passed over Gus Carter’s overflowing body. The man hunched on the front steps, his head in his hands, lost in God-knew-what thoughts.
When the lights brushed over him, Gus lifted his head and glanced at the deputy’s car. He seemed not to understand why the car was in his drive for a moment. He brushed his fingers through his messy hair and stood up like a drunk man.
Henderson caught Gus’s wobbling movement, and his eyes turned to slits. He hoped to high heaven that Norma Jean hadn’t been right about Gus’s state. He knew that he wouldn’t hear the end of that otherwise, and the last thing he wanted was to give more ammunition to that woman.
Gus started down the stairs with hesitant steps. He kept wiping his hands off his pants. His palms were clammy. His legs felt like jelly, and each step demanded more and more strength from him.
He met the deputy at the bottom of the imposing staircase, lined with geraniums in clay pots, and he tried to smile. The grimace on his lips reminded Chris Henderson of a gargoyle he had once seen in a horror movie.
Henderson shook Gus’s hand and regretted it instantly. Disgusted, he tried to wipe it off warily, but it was hard not to be evident.
“Good evening, Gus,” he greeted the older man gently. “What’s going on? I understand that you called the Sheriff’s Office,” he hinted at the conversation he had heard earlier. At least Chris had heard Norma Jean’s side of the discussion.
“That woman…” Gus started to say and choked. He cleared his throat noisily and tried again, “That woman….” He couldn’t push the words past his lips, although his throat worked hard.
“What woman, Gus?” Chris Henderson asked and thought of helping the man sit back on the steps.
Gus’s legs were shaking violently now, and Chris feared the man would collapse. He eyed Gus carefully. He wasn’t sure that he would be strong enough to support Gus’s mass if it came to that. Henderson wasn’t a tiny man, but Gus had the bulk of an ox.
Gus sat carefully on the bottom step. He seemed somewhat older, and new wrinkles lined his grey face. Taking note of all the visible signs, Chris was sure something unusual had happened in the Carters’ house. Besides, the deputy hadn’t sniffed spirits on the older man.
Gus braced his elbows on his raised knees and glanced up at Chris with weary eyes. His thick lips quivered, and he licked the bottom one nervously.
“That woman, the one in the Sheriff’s Office, she told me I was drunk,” Gus finally said. His eyes flashed with anger, but Chris didn’t say anything, although he understood that Gus felt insulted.
Afraid he might lose his position in the sheriff’s office, Chris didn’t dare say something detrimental about Norma Jean. He liked his job, even though he didn’t get to do what he had once dreamed. And besides that, there weren’t many available jobs going around, and unemployment didn’t hold any attraction for Chris.
“So, you spoke to Norma,” Chris said softly. “I know that, Gus. I was in the office when the call came. Why did you call? What happened?”
Gus looked at Chris as if horns sprouted on his forehead, and his eyes betrayed his disbelief. Gus had thought the deputy knew what had happened. He had come there, after all.
“Lorna’s dead,” he replied drily, too tired to go into details again.
“Dead?” the deputy repeated.
“Deader than a doorknob,” Gus nodded and licked his lips again.
He needed to drink something. Probably water, but he wouldn’t have refused a generous glass of bourbon. He shook his head with regret. I should have thought about it earlier. With this kid here, I can’t touch my stash. What if he asks for some?
Unconsciously, he wiped off his palms on his knees again. Sweat beaded his forehead as well.
“Where is she?” Chris asked, bending one knee to see Gus’s eyes better.
Gus pointed his head toward the house, “There, in the kitchen. She’s on the floor…” His lips trembled, and he shook his head. “There’s so much blood…” A new wave of nausea raised in his throat, and he pushed it back.
“All right,” Chris replied. “Stay here, and I’ll go to take a look. The sheriff should arrive soon. I told Norma Jean to call him,” he threw over his shoulder before starting up the stairs.
Gus fluttered his hand and said, “I called him just before you came. I wouldn’t let that Norma Jean thwart me like that. I’m better than that,” he nodded confidently.
Gus had regained some of his self-assurance. Now, Chris had before his eyes the man aware of his importance in society. Norma Jean had overstepped her boundaries, and Chris knew that Gus would let the matter die. However, the deputy didn’t care one way or another. Norma Jean made her bed after all. She could lie in it now.
Chris climbed the stairs and let himself into the house. Gus had left the door wide open in his rush out, and Chris noticed the bloody footprints that Gus had left in the hall. They were leading to the kitchen.
Carefully, the deputy avoided the footprints that ran the hall length and entered the kitchen. On his way, he stole a glance here and there. He wasn’t curious to see the interior of Gus’s house, even if he had never been invited to the house before. He wanted only to make sure that no one else hid inside and to see what possible clues lay in full sight.
The harsh light from the ceiling fell on Lorna’s body, sprawled in a pool of almost coagulated blood. The woman had dropped on one side of the kitchen table, one leg slightly bent and one hand clutched to her chest. She was on her back, and the light fell squarely on her face, revealing every line and flaw. Her expression had frozen in a mask of utter disbelief. Chris reasoned that the killer must have come as a surprise to the woman.
Chris knew that he didn’t need to check for a pulse. Gus had been accurate in his evaluation. Lorna was, indeed, deader than a doorknob.
His gaze fell on the remains of Gus’s dinner, and he closed his eyes. Chris left the kitchen, slightly queasy, as well.
He had never seen murder before and couldn’t recall a crime in the county during his entire lifetime. They dealt with drunken behavior, domestic arguments, and the occasional theft. Nothing in his career had prepared him for that scene, and he doubted that the sheriff was better suited to investigate a murder.
The deputy reached the front door right after he heard the screech of the sheriff’s car braking in the drive. In the same position he had left him, Gus suddenly looked up just in time to witness the sheriff coming out of his car.
“Henderson, you’re here,” the sheriff said and braced his hands on his hips. “That’s good. Have you found anything?” he asked, and a quiver of hope penetrated his voice.
Henderson guessed that the sheriff would have liked to put the Norma Jean matter to rest, but he couldn’t oblige him. Now, you’ll get it, you big-ass bully. Yet, he kept his satisfaction hidden and reported in an indifferent voice. “Yes, Sheriff, I did. Lorna Carter lies on the floor in the kitchen. Someone stabbed her multiple times. I didn’t approach the body, so I can’t tell you how many times exactly.”
A shadow crossed the sheriff’s face, and he bowed his head with a sigh. He felt defeated. He didn’t have too much love for Norma Jean. She might have been a very beautiful broad, but she was rude and smug.
Norma Jean had sealed her fate now, as well as his. He knew that his marital life would be hell. His wife had a strong family sense and would have his head for not protecting her little sister.
“What are you going to do about that ne’er do good, Norma Jean?” Gus jumped off the stairs, gathering steam with every step he took. “She treated me like the scum of the earth,” he bellowed, waving a tight fist under the sheriff’s nose.
Chris assessed the man with interest, but he kept his own counsel. Gus seemed more concerned with retribution than with his wife’s murder. It hadn’t been too much love spilled between the two of them.
“Don’t you think we should see about Lorna first, Gus?” the sheriff inquired, not without sarcasm. “Your wife lies dead on your kitchen floor, and I see you’re looking for satisfaction. That doesn’t vouch too much for you,” he continued, spearing Gus with his words, and neither Gus nor Chris missed the unspoken threat in the sheriff’s words.
“Kenneth Willow,” Gus exclaimed, “you can’t believe I’ve had anything to do with Lorna’s death.”
Gus’s eyes bulged, ready to pop out of their sockets. The dampness of his palms intensified, and when he wiped them off on his shirt, they left a wet trace. He bit his bottom lip uncontrollably.
Kenneth just shrugged indifferently, happy that he had derailed the conversation from Norma Jean. Then, he turned to Chris, “Henderson, do you have anything in your car? Like yellow paint, forensic kit, you know, the works?”
Chris stared at him, startled. He shook his head to clear it and inquired, “Shouldn’t we call OSBI, sheriff? It’s a murder, after all.”
He was pretty sure that no one in the sheriff’s office had the necessary training to investigate a murder, and definitely not the sheriff. He couldn’t find his head if he had to look for it.
“We don’t need them,” Kenneth replied sternly, dismissing his words off-hand. “Do you have the kit or not?” he barked.
His blood pressure had already raised a notch during the confrontation with Gus, and his face had slightly colored. Henderson’s suggestion just made things worse.
Chris nodded, and after a brief hesitation, he went to the car to bring the kit. He doubted that the sheriff knew what he was doing, and he didn’t like to think of the mess to follow. He decided to keep himself as far as possible from any subsequent disaster. Otherwise, his career would have ended before it had had the chance to start.
Kenneth followed him with small and complicated eyes. He had never liked that Henderson. The man reasoned too much and had too much common sense. Now that Lorna was gone, Henderson was in a stable position to take the sheriff’s place, and his hatred for his young deputy rose.
 Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation
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